The Washington Diplomat / July 2009
By Larry Luxner
Five years ago, the mere mention of Libya evoked images of a brutally repressive dictatorship that bombed civilian airliners, pursued weapons of mass destruction, threatened foreign doctors with execution for intentionally spreading AIDS, and tortured anyone who spoke out against the regime.
These days, Col. Muammar Gaddafi still rules Libya with an iron fist, but his image abroad has softened considerably, though the eccentric revolutionary is hardly the poster boy for good behavior. Still, he’s worked hard to at least shed his status as a pariah in the international community. In February, Gaddafi was elected (some say anointed) rotating chairman of the 53-nation African Union. Early last month, a senior Libyan diplomat — Ali Treky — assumed the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. And after lots of ups and downs, the oil-rich North African country today enjoys full diplomatic relations with the United States.
That’s made Ali Suleiman Aujali’s life a lot easier.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Aujali’s arrival in Washington, an event made possible by the Bush administration’s decision to establish low-level ties with the Gaddafi regime for the first time in 17 years. In the beginning, the Libyan Interests Section was officially an annex of the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, staffed by exactly three people. Aujali in fact just recently received his official accreditation as ambassador in January this year, before which he was formally known as director of the interests section in Washington.
“When we came here in 2004, we were still on the State Department terrorist list and Libya was still under sanctions,” the 65-year-old diplomat said in a recent interview. At that time, Aujali and his staff were issued U.S. visas for only three months at a time, and could only travel within 25 miles of the Washington Monument. “But since then, we’ve been able to have all the sanctions removed.”
Aujali’s arrival followed an agreement by Gaddafi to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was ripped apart by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Libya also accepted responsibility for the 1988 terrorist attack in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which immediately lifted all sanctions.
Shortly after that, Gaddafi’s abandonment of a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction prompted the Bush administration to end the U.S. travel ban against Libya. The freeze ended with the May 2006 resumption of bilateral ties, followed two years later by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s historic visit to Tripoli that effectively concluded three decades of hostility. But not everyone warmed up to the reformed dictator, and ardent opposition remained in Congress and elsewhere against cozying up to a regime tied to a string of terrorist attacks in the 1980s.
As such, the resumption of relations didn’t happen as quickly as Aujali had expected. The envoy spoke to The Washington Diplomat back in January 2005 for the cover story “Libya Shedding Its Pariah Status,” in which he said, “We’re very optimistic…. Our relations are warming up, and we hope we’ll reach full diplomatic relations between our two countries as soon as possible.”
Since then, Aujali has lamented that Libya was not rewarded sooner for its decision to scrap nuclear weapons, complaining in an April letter to the New York Times that “our experience sends the opposite signal to countries like Iran and North Korea,” he argued. “The United States needs to send a stronger message that Libya has made the right decision.”
Aujali spoke to The Washington Diplomat more recently from the comfort of his basement family room at the official residence on Wyoming Avenue, with his 2-year-old granddaughter Danya looking on. Over glasses of mint tea and California dates, Gaddafi’s man in Washington conceded that “2008 was a very difficult year for us.”
“Congress adopted another resolution to impose more sanctions against Libya. We had to work very closely with the American delegation, but we’ve been able to settle all issues of compensation as of August 2008.”
Libya overcame the sanctions by paying $1.5 billion into a fund to settle the final claims by families of Americans killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. That allowed Gene Cretz — the first ambassador to Libya in 36 years — to take up his post last December.
“He’s a very serious man, an experienced diplomat. I know him personally,” Aujali said of Cretz, who previously served at U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. “Sometimes ambassadors are negative, but not this one. He wants to improve our relations.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli opened in 2004, initially operating out of the Corinthia Hotel. The embassy now rents half a dozen villas and is looking to construct its own mission. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have begun issuing visas directly from Tripoli, eliminating the need for business executives and students to travel to neighboring Tunisia to apply for visas.
“We have very good relations with the U.S., we’re working together in Africa, and various technology agreements and memos of understanding have been signed,” Aujali said proudly. “When I arrived, we had no Libyan students here in the U.S. Now we have 1,500 students here. All the American companies are back doing business, and many members of Congress have been to Libya.”
The attraction, of course, is oil — lots of it. Libya has proven petroleum reserves of 36 billion barrels, nearly 3 percent of the world’s total. But because only one-fourth of the vast desert land has been explored for oil and gas deposits, there may well be another 50 billion to 100 billion barrels underneath the Libyan desert just waiting to be discovered.
“Libya is one of the world’s two great undeveloped oil frontiers. The other is Iraq,” David Goldwyn, executive director of the US-Libya Business Association, told The Diplomat in 2007. “Libya is a low geological risk, it’s politically stable, it’s close to the European market, and they’ve been hugely successful with their international tenders.”
But it’s been slow going so far to tap the country’s potential. Libya’s development target is to boost oil production from the current 1.6 million barrels per day to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2020, the equivalent production rate in the 1970s. At the same time, it hopes to increase reserves to 20 billion barrels of oil equivalent. To achieve this, Libya’s state-run National Oil Co. (NOC) is targeting a minimum of 50 wildcat wells drilled per year.
All that oil and gas has made the energy-hungry Europeans very interested in Libya. Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969, has met several of Europe’s top heads of state in recent years, including Great Britain’s Tony Blair in 2007 and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in 2008 and last month.
But Gaddafi’s biggest moment will come this month, when he’ll represent the African Union at the G8 summit in Italy from July 8 to 10. President Barack Obama is also scheduled to attend the specific part of the gathering dealing with African issues, making it likely that the two men will meet. If that actually happens, it would be the first encounter ever between Gaddafi and a U.S. president.
“I think they cannot avoid each other,” quipped Aujali, recalling Obama’s widely hyped handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at a regional summit in Trinidad earlier this year. “America’s relations with us are much better than their relations with Venezuela. And since he took office, we’ve heard a lot of very promising and constructive comments from President Obama.”
Yet while Obama was still a candidate, according to a Reuters news report, Gaddafi said the senator from Illinois would have an “inferiority complex” because of his race and that if elected president, he might “behave worse than whites.” But the Libyan ruler later called Obama’s White House win a “victory for black people.”
Still, for many observers, Gaddafi seems to relish his gaffes and provocations. His eccentricity was on full display during a June visit to Italy, where Gaddafi was accompanied by his usual entourage of female bodyguards, reportedly requesting to meet with 700 Italian women, perhaps as part of his stated desire to “save European women.” In rambling remarks, he also praised Italy as the only colonial state that had “cleaned up its past from expansionist and colonialist policies.”
And despite his fervent pan-African nationalism, Gaddafi’s controversial views and behavior are cause for concern — even among many of his African colleagues.
According to a New York Timesaccount, his recent installation in Addis Ababa as head of the African Union “resembled more of a coronation than a democratic transfer of power. Col. Gaddafi was dressed in flowing gold robes and surrounded by traditional African leaders who hailed him as the ‘king of kings.’”
Gaddafi is a vocal supporter of transforming the fragmented continent into a United States of Africa, a prospect even many Africans debunk as fantasy. “He has repeatedly proposed immediate unity and the establishment of a single currency, army and passport for the entire continent,” the Times wrote. “While a few African leaders share his passion and his timetable for this pan-African vision, most prefer a go-slow approach” and some say the idea is downright ridiculous.
Yet Aujali says his boss isn’t just looking for a good photo op. “There is not a single leader in Africa who doesn’t recognize Leader Gaddafi’s effort to bring Africans together, solving critical problems which are killing people every day,” he told The Diplomat. “Libya is getting nothing for ourselves. We are doing this just to get Africans to help each other, instead of fighting. Libya has no special interests in Africa.”
The ambassador added: “We must defuse the crisis in Darfur and normalize humanitarian aid. Africa deserves more attention, and we must create jobs in Africa if we want to stop illegal immigration to Europe.”
But some critics say all this is a diversion to steer attention away from Libya’s own shabby record on human rights. According to a Freedom House report on Libya, “while there have been some tentative steps in the field of economic reform, political change has remained largely off the agenda. Col. Gaddafi has shown no willingness to alter the fundamentals of the Libyan political system. Political parties are banned, and there are no genuinely independent civil society organizations.”
The report concludes: “While there has been an easing in recent years whereby the regime allows some degree of criticism of certain aspects of the government and encourages former dissidents to return to the country, anyone daring openly to challenge the regime or the Libyan state is in danger of arrest, torture and imprisonment.”
On that note, Gaddafi’s loudest critics abroad were outraged in late May when Libya’s most famous dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi, died in Amman, Jordan, two weeks after being allowed to leave a Tripoli hospital. “Fathi al-Jahmi suffered six and a half years of detention, including periods he spent incommunicado, for advocating a free press, free elections and nonviolent democratic reform in his native Libya,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He should never have been arrested in the first place.”
But Ambassador Aujali dismisses any suggestions that Gaddafi systematically engages in human rights abuses, insisting that — on the contrary — “there’s lots of progress” on this front.
“These accusations are unfounded,” he said. “Human rights is an issue not only in Libya, but every single country in the world. I think the United States is included in this, too. But so many steps have been taken to improve human rights in Libya. For example, human rights organizations go to Libya all the time; they visit detainees if there are any. And the Gaddafi Foundation is very much involved in the protection of human rights.”
Jahmi though clearly never benefitted from Gaddafi’s human rights outreach. His detention and death reflect the pitfalls of Western rapprochement with Tripoli. Nevertheless, with vast energy potential and a renouncement of nuclear weapons, that rapprochement remains on track, as evidenced by the diplomatic progress made locally in Washington.
These days, except for its inability to issue tourist visas to average Americans, the Libyan Embassy — located on the seventh floor of the Watergate Office Building overlooking the Potomac River — functions just as any other mission in town.
Iran and North Korea, which are blacklisted by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism, don’t even have embassies here. Since both are enthusiastically racing to acquire the ability to manufacture nuclear technology, we asked Aujali if there were any lessons to be learned from Gaddafi’s 2003 pledge to forever renounce weapons of mass destruction.
“The North Koreans are looking very carefully at what Libya got from the United States. Does the administration keep their promises? I believe this is a very important issue,” Aujali responded. “But if you just want North Korea or other countries to give up what they have without getting something in return, it will not be a very successful policy. The first thing is, you have to be ready to talk — which was not the policy of the previous administration.”
The same thing, he said, goes for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. “There is nothing else you can do with Iran but talk to them and show them you’re serious about your approach. Iran is a big country with a great history and cannot be ignored. Iran is much larger than Libya, and they have more options than we had.”
Aujali has no shortage of opinions when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict either.
“Leader Gaddafi believes in a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine. He calls this state Isratine,” the ambassador said, referring to a proposal widely dismissed by Israel and its Arab neighbors. “I’m happy to see that President Obama showed from the first day he’s concerned about peace in the Middle East. His speech in Cairo was very promising. He went to the Arab world to speak directly to us. I believe that now Arabs feel more comfortable dealing with the United States. We never heard this positive approach before in American history.”
Aujali declined to say publicly what would happen if Israel — with which Libya has no diplomatic relations — launched a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, insisting that “there is no option for Israel but peace. They are surrounded by Arab nations, and you need a great leader to make peace.”
Asked if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is such a leader, Aujali smiled. “Our experience with Netanyahu is not very encouraging.”
On a brighter note, Aujali said he’s working with the State Department to normalize the visa process for Libyans seeking to visit the United States. “We were giving tourists visas for the first year, expecting that the U.S. would reciprocate. But it didn’t happen, so we stopped,” Aujali explained.
“Once the visa issue is resolved, I expect lots of Americans to come. I’ve told my government that every time an American travels to Libya, we gain a new friend. They see Libya with their own eyes, they find the Libyan people are friendly, and there’s lots to see — Roman antiquities, beautiful coastline, deserts. And it’s safe.”
Reporters generally like to leave the most difficult questions for last, and the issue of succession in Libya is a taboo subject. So it was no surprise when, toward the end of our lengthy meeting, The Diplomat delicately asked Aujali what would happen after Col. Gaddafi, who just turned 67, passes from the scene.
The ambassador smiled again politely, took a sip of tea and said, “Please do not ask me this question.”