“Rehabilitating a pariah state is never easy or without distasteful aspects,” writes the New York Times today in an editorial. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, yesterday the Libyans demonstrated once again just how hard it is for democracies to work with hardline regimes, even ones that appear to be on the right track.
On Thursday, Condoleezza Rice met with her Libyan counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, in Washington in the highest level talks between the two countries in 35 years. After the one-hour meeting, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that Secretary Rice had asked Libya to improve its human rights, which are “an important agenda item for our bilateral relationship.” Yesterday, however, Tripoli contradicted Washington’s account of the meeting. “There was absolutely no mention of the human rights situation in Libya during the discussions in Washington,” the Libyan Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The State Department refused to comment on Tripoli’s denial except to say that there had been no change in McCormack’s version of events.
Why should we care about this disagreement? After all, as diplomatic imbroglios go, this one registers about zero on the Richter scale. Nonetheless, these days almost everything involving Libya is important to us. The North African nation, whether it likes it or not, has offered itself up as a test case for the world. In an era of rapid nuclear proliferation, it gave up its weapons program, and in a decade of global terrorism, it stepped back. So if the West cannot guide this nation toward a more open society, then we will be confirming the strength of an authoritarianism that is sweeping region after region and rolling back the clock. In short, Muammar Qaddafi’s state has become a weathervane at a time when the Western democracies need to show that they—and not the Chinas or the Russias—represent the trend of history. Libya has only six million people, yet they can inspire the two billion others who are not free.
It was clear, even before the flap following Rice’s meeting this week, that Qaddafi is reluctant to moderate his despotic rule. Who can blame the “Supreme Guide of the Revolution” for failing to go forward after pocketing the initial round of benefits for re-engaging the international community? It is up to the West to put even more effort in making sure that he addresses human rights concerns. After all, the liberalization of Libyan society is as important to us as it is to the Libyans. As the Times reminds us, working with repugnant rulers can be unpleasant. In Libya’s case, it is also essential.