Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.10.14

Will Libya's relations with the United States improve?

Libya is yet another Arab country in which many of its citizens rose up, demanding freedom and democracy. With a well-armed military, Colonel Gaddafi has long resisted the rebellion. Now, however, the anti-Gaddafi Transitional National Council (TNC) has been recognized as the new government of Libya. Although Col. Gaddafi has not been arrested, that seems to be just a matter of time.

The Libyan revolution was successful due to the strong support of nations in the west. Here, Great Britain and France played the major roles and, although the United States had intentionally determined not to play a leading role, its presence loomed large. From now on, relations between Libya and the U.S. shall continue to be of critical importance.

During Col. Gaddafi's reign, the two countries had relations that can only be characterized as abnormal. In the 1980s, their relations worsened drastically, when U.S. jet fighters shot down Libyan jet fighters and the U.S. Navy sank two Libyan patrol boats. These incidents all took place in the Gulf of Sidra. Although this brief recap makes it appear as if the United States had initiated the attacks, the truth of the matter is that Libya first offended the US vessels claiming that they had intruded into the Gulf of Sidra, the Libyan territorial water and the US vessels which did not recognize such a claim launched a counter-attack against Libya.

Angry Col. Gaddafi exacted his revenge in April 1986, by bombing a disco frequented by American soldiers, killing many of them. President Reagan called Col Gaddafi "the mad dog of the Middle East" and responded by launching an aerial bombing attack against targets near Tripoli and Benghazi, killing over forty Libyans.

Around this time, the Middle East was rife with incidents having potentially dangerous consequences. Then in 1987, North Korea bombed Korean Airlines. A few months later, a U.S. Navy missile downed Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children.

Five month later on December 21, 1988, a bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 243 passengers, 16 crew members, and 11 persons on the ground. The largest number of those killed were Americans, with about 200, followed by British. An extensive, three-year investigation, involving interviews of more than 15,000 persons, resulted in the accusation that two Libyans had committed the crime.

In 1992, the UN Security Council strongly criticized this act of terrorism and, as a result, imposed sanctions on Libya. The trials lasted a long time but, finally, in 2001, a special court on Scotland found Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Thereafter, the Libyan government began signaling its willingness to render compensation for the bombing over Scotland. In 2003, the Libyan ambassador to the UN submitted a letter to the UN Security Council accepting responsibility for the actions of Libya's officials and agreeing to pay $10 million to each family. Libya also announced that it would abandon all weapons of mass destruction, thereby abandoning its erstwhile belligerence and demonstrating a willingness to be more cooperative.

That having been said, al-Megrahi never admitted his involvement in the blowing up of Pan Am Flight 103, and he continued his efforts to appeal and then further appeal the decision finding him guilty, even after the revolution unfolded. Now, he is said to be in a coma from last stage prostate cancer. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, fully consistent with the pointed views in his country, has said on the BBC that the TNC should send al-Megrahi to the U.K. for retrial. The TNC has stated emphatically that it would not do so. Therefore, it is likely that the matter will never be fully resolved before al-Megrahi dies.

This now leaves the question of what to do with Col. Gaddafi. The TNC has also admitted Libya's involvement in the Pan Am matter. The Chairman of the TNC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil (Minister of Justice in the Gaddafi government), has claimed that he has proof that Gaddafi himself had personally ordered the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. (in a February 23, 2011 interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen)

Whenever Gaddafi is arrested, it is likely that he will be tried for crimes against humanity. This is a most significant issue but will the holding of a trial of Gaddafi be sufficient to normalize the relations between the U.S. and Libya? One is not certain.

Gaddafi both used and fueled Libyan nationalism for the purpose of antagonizing the United States. His ouster does not end nationalism in Libya. It is a country in which the domestic situation, which implicates both religion and oil rights, is enormously complicated, one in which China's interests cannot be ignored. Having considered these various aspects, one cannot say yet that Libya will be able to establish good relations with the U.S.