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Gadhafi's Image Changing - 2002-01-18

In years past, some of the worst terrorist attacks on Americans were attributed to Muammar Gadhafi, ruler of Libya. Today, as an ardent opponent of terrorism, he is mending relations with the United States and appears to be moving into the international mainstream.

Times change, says Professor Charles Macdonald of Florida International University. So do people, even dictators. That seems to be the case with Muammar Gadhafi, ruler of Libya, who appears to have changed from terrorist to anti-terrorist and become ready to make peace with his former enemies.

Chief of these was the United States, victim of some of his terrorist plots. Now says Professor Macdonald, the United States is willing to deal with a reformed rogue state. "One wonders at what point, if ever, such states could become legitimate again, a partner for trade, commerce, international relations in general. What we have seen is that Gadhafi appears to be crossing a barrier that some of the other states have not. It appears now that the United States and Libya have been focusing on certain mutual interests, and Libya has been moving positively from the standpoint of American policy to be considered as a potential legitimate player on the world scene again," he says.

A major hurdle to improving relations was the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland with many Americans on board. Libya was accused of the attack, but Mr. Gadhafi denied involvement until he finally handed over two suspects a decade later. One was convicted, the other acquitted. Now Libya has indicated it is willing to take responsibility for the bombing and compensate the victims' families.

It has done still more, says David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Libya was quick to react to the al-Qaida attack on the United States,

"The Libyans have made some very important gestures of concern toward the United States and sympathetically, condemned the bombings of 9/11, condemned the anthrax mailings, actually spoke of the U.S. right of retaliation in a very clear and unambiguous manner," Professor Macdonald says.

Mr. Mack notes President Bush said every country must either be with us or against us in the battle with terrorism. Gadhafi chose the right side.

Terrorism, in fact, has been a dead end for Mr. Gadhafi.

"Muammar Gadhafi has been changing his approach in foreign policy over several years now, partly because of his dissatisfaction with earlier policies that focused very heavily on Arab unity, but partly just because he is older, he is wiser, and I think experience has taught him that he can do more for Libya in constructive ways than in simply lashing out toward other countries," he says.

Mr. Gadhafi says he no longer wastes time talking to Arabs. He is now concerned with Africans and has tried to mediate disputes in some of their countries.

In his quest for respectability, he has received crucial, if quiet help from U.S. oil companies that want to do business again in Libya. That means lifting U.S. sanctions. The Wall Street Journal says Conoco estimates it has lost $5 billion in oil revenue since it was forced to leave Libya in 1986.

Perhaps most important in improving relations between Libya and the United States is that they share a common foe: militant Islam that threatens both countries. Mr. Gadhafi has got a taste of terrorism and decided he does not like it.