Following decades of conflict, Libya and the United States took major steps to improve their bilateral relationship in the closing months of the Bush administration. In September 2008, Condoleezza Rice visited Libya, the first secretary of State to do so since John Foster Dulles in 1953. In November, two weeks after Libya contributed $1.5 billion to a newly created Humanitarian Settlement Fund intended to resolve outstanding lawsuits by American victims of Libyan terrorism, President George W. Bush telephoned the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and voiced his satisfaction with the settlement. In December 2008, Gene A. Cretz took up his position as U.S. ambassador to Libya, the first since 1972.

The importance of these events cannot be overestimated. The real question now, however, is where does the Obama administration go from here with Libya?

A Normal Relationship at Last

Following centuries of colonial rule, Libya declared independence on December 24, 1951. An ambivalent supporter of Libyan independence, the United States throughout the 1950s viewed Libya less as an independent state and more as a strategic airbase. With the discovery of oil in 1959, the focus of U.S. interests changed as officials began to see Libya mostly as an inexpensive petrol pump.

In the decade after Qaddafi seized power on September 1, 1969, Libya became for the United States a source of regional instability. It was, for instance, on the original list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1979. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration treated Libya as a global terrorist organization, and U.S. officials continued to characterize it as such throughout the 1990s. In short, for the first 50 years of Libyan independence, the United States routinely failed to treat Libya as an independent state, due the recognition accorded to any other state.

Reflecting both historical circumstance and personal ego, Libyan leader Qaddafi doggedly pursued the respect of the U.S. government from the outset of the Libyan revolution. In this sense, Rice’s brief visit to Libya in September 2008 was historic, not just because it was the first such visit in more than 50 years, but also because it symbolized the U.S. recognition that Libya had sought for so many years. In December 2008, Ambassador C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Reuters news agency that the claims settlement with Libya opened “the horizon to a normal relationship of the kind we might have with any country.” His remarks marked the first time an American official had stated publicly the possibility of a normal relationship with Libya since Qaddafi came to power in 1969.

Permanent Interests

As for the next steps in this bilateral relationship, it isn’t enough for the United States simply to talk about what’s wrong with Libya, or to ask what Libya needs to say or do differently, as successive U.S. governments have done in the past. Instead, the Obama administration must focus on what it wants from its relationship with Libya.

In so doing, it should begin by recognizing that Libya is as important to the United States as the United States is to Libya. Moreover, it should also recognize that there are real limits to the ability of the United States to change Libya. What it can do more readily is to change its own attitudes and policies toward Libya.

Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), Britain’s foreign secretary and prime minister for many years, once observed that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” In private and public statements, including a conversation with the author at the State Department in mid-December 2008, former Secretary of State Rice repeated his injunction, arguing that Libya and the United States shared “permanent interests.” Those interests include counterterrorism, trade, nuclear proliferation, Africa, cultural and other initiatives, human rights, and democracy.

Counterterrorism, Energy, and Trade

Counterterrorism remains an obvious area of bilateral cooperation. Long a target of fundamental Islamist groups, Libyan leader Qaddafi in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks rushed to support the Bush administration’s war on terror. Since that time, U.S. intelligence officials have conducted information-sharing sessions with their Libyan counterparts on a regular basis. These should continue with the Obama administration.

At present, Libya oil reserves are estimated to be 41.46 billion barrels with gas reserves at 1.419 trillion cubic meters. With four rounds of exploration agreements completed since 2004, experts believe proven reserves will double or even triple in future years. Libya exported some oil to the United States in the 1970s, but Europe remains its primary market. Nevertheless, Libyan oil and gas reserves are of direct interest to the United States because they ease production pressures on its traditional suppliers.

Outside the energy sector, the United States has never been the major trade or investment partner with Libya. Given Libya’s small population of just over 6 million people, future trade opportunities for U.S. exporters, with a few exceptions, will remain relatively small. New investment opportunities exist in areas like tourism and infrastructure development, but the current political and legal systems in place make it difficult for most U.S. companies, outside the energy sector, to pursue them.

Official U.S. trade interests may fall more in the area of what other countries sell to Libya as opposed to what Americans supply. In the early 1980s, Libya had the highest ratio of military equipment to manpower in the Third World. Based on recent talks with France, Russia, and other states, the Qaddafi regime looks set once more to reward support from the armed forces with sophisticated new armaments. In January 2009, the United States inked an agreement with Libya providing for information exchanges on defense and security issues, as well as talks on the sale of military equipment. The Obama administration is unlikely to approve the sale of weapons systems to Libya; however, the provision of non-lethal military supplies is now possible. At the same time, Washington must remain concerned with the potential ramifications of a rearmament program in a state with a history of involvement in its neighbor’s affairs. Given Libya’s recent renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, its talks with France and Russia aimed at peaceful nuclear cooperation also fall into the category of a permanent interest of the United States.

Regional Concerns

From the outset of the Libyan revolution, the Qaddafi regime took a strong interest in African affairs. Once the two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing were remanded into custody in 1999, Libyan initiatives in the region expanded as part of an attempt to create a United States of Africa, with Qaddafi as head of state. With Libyan foreign policy continuing to tout “Africa for the Africans,” Qaddafi in February 2009 was elected to a one-year term as chairman of the African Union.

Consequently, there is little support in Libya for U.S. policies like the U.S. Africa Command or the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Conversely, there remains concern in Washington with Tripoli’s ongoing involvement in the domestic policies of numerous African states, from Uganda to Zimbabwe, together with its courtship of minority groups in the Sahel-Sahara region. Qaddafi’s proclivity to play the role of regional peacekeeper is often another area of uncertainty — and irritation — for American policymakers. Moreover, Qaddafi’s AU role gives him a bully pulpit to question Obama administration initiatives in Africa.

Culture, Education, Science, and the Environment

On a more positive note, Libya and the United States have concluded or discussed several agreements related to cultural, educational, environmental, and scientific issues. These include a scientific cooperation agreement and an education and culture protocol. Regarding education, it’s clearly in America’s interest to encourage Libyan students to study in the United States as thousands did in the 1970s. Currently, some 1,500 Libyans are studying in the United States, and the number is expected to swell in the future.

Issues related to science and the environment begin with Libya’s carbon output, which is the highest per capita in the region. In addition, most Libyan cities don’t have licensed landfills, and dust levels, which have increased 1,000% in the last two decades, negatively influence air quality and environmentally sensitive areas, like coral reefs. Libya has established a few nature reserves and national parks; however, control and policing of them is spotty. Water tables in coastal areas continue to decline, adding to existing problems of salinity in previously tillable land. Finally, the depletion of underground aquifers, due to the Great Manmade River Project, threatens gigantic sink holes in the desert. Obama administration initiatives in soft policy issue areas like these offer opportunities for bilateral cooperation with limited political exposure or risk.

Human Rights and Democracy

The promotion of human rights and democracy are the two related policy areas where it will likely continue to prove difficult to find common ground. Until recently, the U.S. government had largely ignored these issues, focusing first on the resolution of the Lockerbie affair and then on the renunciation of WMD. Questions of democracy and human rights did not become a regular part of the bilateral dialogue until 2003 when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell added them to the agenda.

Since that time, Libya has taken small steps to improve its human rights record; however, much more needs to be done. Moreover, meaningful democratic reforms have been virtually nonexistent, and there is no evidence that Libyan leader Qaddafi intends to move toward a representative democratic system anytime soon. Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the leader’s eldest son by his second wife and his presumed successor, has been touting a new constitution, but the latest indications are that it will outline a kind of social contract, à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as opposed to a new and more democratic political system.

Although the current situation is no excuse for inaction, the most productive approach in the immediate future may be to engage in confidence-building while continuing to advocate progress in human rights and democratic reforms. Progress will likely be slow, but the Obama administration should not be seen as legitimizing the present system of government. Washington could also assume a useful role as an active coordinator of efforts to promote democratic change. Several Western governments and NGOs have sponsored seminars or training sessions on democracy-related issues in recent years, but no one has attempted to coordinate these efforts to ensure they complement and reinforce each other.

In the closing days of the Bush administration, Libya and the United States embarked upon a new and very different relationship. The eventual parameters of this relationship are not clear and are unlikely to be so for years to come. Some elements of this new relationship are obvious — involving longstanding commercial, diplomatic, and security interests — while others are less certain and some perhaps not yet visible. Most of these interests share common denominators in that they are complicated and require concerted action on both sides for progress to be made. In that regard, one of the most promising aspects of recent developments is U.S. recognition that Libya is a country with which the United States can expect to have the same normal relationship we might have with any other country.

Ronald Bruce St John, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, served on the International Advisory Board of The Journal of Libyan Studies and the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya. His most recent book is Libya: From Colony to Independence (Oneworld, 2008).

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