Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has told a U.S. audience Libya has changed dramatically from the country that has been on the list of states sponsoring terrorism for more than a quarter of a century. Mr. Gadhafi lectured America on democracy during a video hookup to a conference of academics and Libya experts at New York's Columbia University.
It was billed as the first major meeting of American and Libyan academics and officials in 25 years. The two-day conference featured more than 50 university professors, researchers and analysts, including many who had never before engaged with their American counterparts.
Also in attendance were senior diplomats from the two countries, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1981. The highlight of the event was a live appearance by satellite hookup of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.
In a rambling hour-long question and answer session, he lectured his audience on democracy, calling Libya's system of people's Congresses "superior" to what he said are the "farcical" democracies of the West.
At the same time, he admitted Libya is "backward, the result of decades of colonial rule."
Speaking through an interpreter, he said Libya is no longer the rogue state that was placed on the U.S. government's list of states sponsoring terrorism in 1979, and is now a member of the African Union. "The current policy of Libya now is not the same policy as in the 1970s and 80s. Now Libya is part of the African Union, our individual national policy is no different from the African Union policy," he said.
U.S. officials welcomed the approach, but with caution. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch said the U.S./Libya relationship changed substantially over the past two years. But he suggested there is still a way to go. "This relationship has been very difficult for a very long time, and we're not, let's be honest, profoundly trusting of each other at this moment. We want a chance to develop that," he said.
Welch said a good place to start would be to put aside discussions of who is right and wrong about events in the past, and focus on things the two countries can do together. He chided the Libyan leader for keeping his country closed to interaction with Americans, and said the United States would try to open its doors more to Libyans.
"What are you afraid of if things are going so well. Show more of your country to others. There's no hesitation. No problem in doing this. It is easier for Americans to go to almost any other place in the Arab Middle East than it is to go to Libya. And you might say to me, that it's hard for Libyans to come to the United States. I agree with you. It shouldn't be so hard. We should work harder to have more open doors," he said.
Welch said the United States is committed to full normalization of relations with Libya, including upgrading its liaison office in Tripoli to an embassy, and removing Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Ties between the two countries have been strained almost since Muammar Gadhafi came to power in a 1969 coup. The United States declared Libya a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and closed Tripoli's embassy in Washington a little more than a year later.
Federal prosecutors indicted two Libyan intelligence agents in 1991 in connection with the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.
Muammar Gadhafi's rehabilitation effort began in 1999 when he turned over the two indicted intelligence agents for trial, and reached a two-point-seven billion dollar settlement with families of the victims.
Relations with the United States have improved since late 2003, when Gadhafi decided to dismantle his clandestine nuclear weapons program. Shortly afterward, Washington reopened its liaison office in Tripoli, 24 years after relations were severed.