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Tom Lantos played key role in U.S.-Libya relations

As the world watches dictator Moammar Gadhafi fighting to retain control of Libya, it’s time to recall that a late Bay Area House member played a key role in recent U.S.-Libyan relations.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, who died in Feburary 2008, was the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee in January 2004 when – with the Bush Administration’s blessing – he became the first U.S. elected official to visit Libya in almost four decades, and the first ever to meet face-to-face with Gadhafi. He and I spoke about that trip soon afterward:

Upon his return, Lantos met with State Department officials and committee chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, to recommend that the United States lift its ban on travel to Libya and — if Gadhafi’s disarmament cooperation continues — eventually lift sanctions and restore diplomatic relations. It is a stunning recommendation, coming from a lawmaker who helped author the U.S. sanctions against Libya and often has railed on the House floor against the country’s human rights abuses.

“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos said. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”

Lantos would return to Libya several times in subsequent years. This week, Reuters reported that diplomatic cables made public through Wikileaks now reveal Gadhafi had urged Lantos to sow division in Saudi Arabia.

One cable recounts how, in 2006, Gaddafi had urged the United States to call for “self determination” for tribal groups of Saudi Arabia, “who would presumably choose a government other than the present monarchy.”

Gaddafi’s comments came on a visit by the late Democrat Congressman Tom Lantos, then a member of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, and were made in Gaddafi’s desert encampment on the outskirts of Sirte, according to the cable from August 2006 headlined “Congressman Lantos stresses bilateral achievements and regional challenges with Libyan officials.”

In an hour-long meeting, Gaddafi mainly expounded on the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, “which has become one of his standard topics,” said the cable; he also lobbied for support for a plan to create “Isratine” — a secular Jewish-Palestinian state — as the best solution for lasting peace in the Middle East.

The cable separately recounts how a speech on political and economic reform by another of Gaddafi’s sons, Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, had earned a rebuke from Egypt’s leader Hosni Mubarak. Lantos had congratulated Seif on his speech, it says. “Seif immediately noted that President Mubarak of Egypt called his father, the leader, to express his displeasure with the speech, saying it called for ‘too much change and too much freedom’ and warning that the country should be more conservative in its approach to change.”

Seif claimed not to know what his father’s reply to Mubarak was, the cable says, commenting that since the speech was broadcast widely on state-run media, it must have had the tacit blessing of the leader.

Lantos himself talked about his meetings with Gadhafi during a June 2007 committee hearing – by which time he was the committee’s chairman – about “U.S. Policy Challenges in North Africa.”

lantos.jpgMuammar Qadhafi of Libya, a leader I have visited half a dozen times in the last three years, wisely turned his country on a more reasonable path in its external relations a few years ago. The Qadhafi of this century is a more sensible reincarnation of the terrorist revolutionary of the past.

I was the first high-ranking U.S. public official to visit Libya after Qadhafi announced his intention to abandon Libya’s nuclear weapons program. I have also helped foster a student exchange program between our two nations. I am very proud of America’s success in convincing Qadhafi to become a decent citizen of the global community.

Our relations with Libya today are in a much better place than they were just five years ago. Our engagement with Qadhafi and the prosperity it has brought Libya serves as a model to countries currently sponsoring terror or compiling weapons of mass destruction. They should know that they, too, can come in from the cold.

Despite the progress, our relationship appears to have come to a standstill. I will be interested to hear from our distinguished witness today what plans the State Department has to address the absence of both a fully-accredited Libyan ambassador here and a fully-accredited American one in Tripoli – one year after the establishment of full diplomatic ties. We need to allow Libyans to get visas to the U.S. without having to travel to Tunisia, and we need to broaden the Libyan study abroad program here beyond the small number of students currently participating.

There are a few other discordant notes. Libya has moved slowly to resolve the bombing cases of Pan Am Flight 103 and the LaBelle discotheque, even though it has agreed to pay compensation to victims’ families in both cases. The country sentenced to death five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian medical intern accused of infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV even after it became clear that such a plot was absurd and the charges were drummed up.

While our progress with Qadhafi over the past three years has been outstanding, his rhetoric sometimes strikes a shrill note that is reminiscent of the past. So I would only submit that if Qadhafi is going to embrace the West fully – and if we are to accept him fully – both his actions and his words must consistently reflect this new attitude.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.