U.S. Visit Marks Gadhafi's Makeover

Libya and its leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, have improved their international standing in recent years. The leader is scheduled to visit the United Nations next month. Host Scott Simon speaks to Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about how Gadhafi has worked to change his image.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Libya is drawing attention again. There was controversy last week after Colonel Moammar Gadhafi gave a hero's welcome home to one of the bombers of Pan Am Flight 103 after his release from a Scottish prison.

Libya was welcomed back to the community of nations in 2003 after Colonel Gadhafi agreed to abandon his country's nuclear plans. And the Lockerbie case aside, Libya has managed to raise its profile recently. It holds the presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Senator John McCain met with Colonel Gadhafi recently. And while U.S. and European companies want access to Libya's vast reserves, so do a lot of other nations, China must notably.

Jennifer Cooke joins us. She's director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. JENNIFER COOKE (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Pleased to be here.

SIMON: Is it possible to look past Colonel Gadhafi's past? I mean he certainly first became known on the world's stage - he a led a military coup, he endorsed violent anti-Western groups.

Dr. COOKE: Two things to think about Gadhafi are his two major ambitions, are to maintain control within Libya, and to craft some kind of global presence for himself and enhance his global stature. He's done that through a number of incarnations.

First, as a Pan-Arabist during the 1970s and '80s, where he tried to create this Federation of Arab States; then as a bulwark against Western imperialism and funding some of these terror networks, and undertaking and organizing acts himself; most recently as chair of the African Union, seeing himself as a Pan-Africanist and trying to reengage with the West and be welcomed back in to the community of states.

SIMON: Has he in recent years, as he's grown older, has he forfeited the hope of being powerful for the certainty of being rich?

Dr. COOKE: Well, he certainly still remains powerful within Libya and he is wealthy. But I think the economy - Libyan economy has suffered over the years because of economic sanctions. He's sitting on the largest oil reserves in Africa but has not been able to tap their full capacity, because of sanctions and dysfunction of the Libyan economy.

SIMON: Now, does this create political problems for him at home? Does he have to worry about maintaining a grip on power if he can't tap the most obvious source of prosperity?

Dr. COOKE: It does. And that's probably a big driver behind his reconciliation with the West and the acknowledgment of responsibility on Lockerbie, and so forth.

He has a lot of players at home. He's torn between hardliners. He has some threat from Islamic extremists within his country. And then there are some reformers who would like to see the political economy change. So he has to constantly play these forces against each other.

SIMON: And how interested is China in Libya?

Dr. COOKE: Well, I imagine they're very interested. You know, one of the things with Libya is that its oil is very politicized in a way. And so that along with economic concessions go very much in hand-in-hand with kind of political negotiations. That makes it very difficult for Western companies to compete in some ways, if you want to do things above board without the overlay of corruption or political concessions.

SIMON: Which is the law. I mean…

Dr. COOKE: Which is our law, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

Dr. COOKE: But there are many who are desperate for oil who may be willing to make those political deals.

SIMON: And as long as he has a lot of oil, a lot of money, and agrees to give up his nuclear programs, there's not much anybody can do?

Dr. COOKE: Yeah, that's right. And it may - there's also ways, I think, that he could be a force for good. For example, in Darfur right now he's playing what the U.S. has acknowledged is a fairly constructive role in trying to negotiate between the government in Sudan and the neighboring government of Chad, opening humanitarian access to Darfur groups. So that there are ways, given his influence, his stature, that, you know, he could actually be a useful partner in some ways on the intelligence sharing and so forth. But you just have to be wary because he is so kind of mercurial and unpredictable.

SIMON: Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thanks so much.

Dr. COOKE: Thank you.

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