ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In the other North African countries where leaders have faced tidal waves of protests, it was pretty easy to describe the relationship of those leaders to the U.S. and Europe. Both Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak were allies in the fight against al-Qaida, and Mubarak's military cooperation with the U.S. and his position on Israel were cornerstones of U.S. Mideast policy.
But the relationship with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi isn't so easy to describe. Cameron Abadi, who is associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine, tries to describe it in his piece "A Regime We Can Trust: How Did The West Get Qaddafi So Wrong?"
Welcome to the program.
Mr. CAMERON ABADI (Associate Editor, Foreign Policy): Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, I'd like you to describe the West's view of Moammar Gadhafi, say, back in the 1970s or '80s when he would have been a candidate for membership in what George W. Bush much later on called the axis of evil.
Mr. ABADI: That's right. Before there was an axis of evil, there was President Reagan's use of the term "mad dog of the Middle East" as applied to Moammar Gadhafi. And that was not only the view of Washington but the rest of the world.
From the time he came into power in 1969, he isolated himself and his country from international politics by supporting terrorism, by loudly proclaiming his support for a reordering of the region along Islamist lines. And the United States and the West responded by gladly isolating him and had very little to do with him.
SIEGEL: Gadhafi's support of terrorism extended not only to Libya's involvement in the Lockerbie bombing...
Mr. ABADI: Hmm.
SIEGEL: ...he even supported the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland against the English.
Mr. ABADI: That's correct. He was - had no particularly coherent philosophy in terms of the terror he supported. He seemingly was willing to cut a check to anybody who was willing to support destruction in one fashion or another.
SIEGEL: So how do we get to the transition from Gadhafi the sanctioned pariah to Gadhafi the Third World leader who came in from the cold?
Mr. ABADI: You know, as I looked into this, I thought what was most fascinating is that it's quite easy to put your finger on precisely when this shift happened. It was the year 2003, when, after the invasion of Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi renounced his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The West and the United States, in particular, was eager to reestablish ties. He said he was willing to crack down on Islamist terrorists, al-Qaida in particular. And the West saw this as a lucrative market to invest in.
And so we saw a series, in the wake of that announcement in 2003, a series of visits, a series of sit-downs with leaders in the West, and big business deals signed.
SIEGEL: Your article poses the question: How did the West get Gadhafi so wrong? Is the long answer oil?
Mr. ABADI: That is certainly the shortest possible answer. Libya is a country with natural resources, like you mentioned, and a lot of money is to be made by quickly signing deals.
SIEGEL: His new friends were not just the Italians who struck a huge deal under Berlusconi. Tony Blair, when he was prime minister of the U.K., met with Gadhafi and somehow had a way of describing the bygones, which included the Lockerbie bombing and indeed Gadhafi's involvement in Northern Ireland.
Mr. ABADI: Tony Blair took the lead in re-establishing ties with Gadhafi, and that was very controversial in Britain. Britain particularly was a target of the terrorism that Gadhafi used to support. There was the Lockerbie bombing that was still an open wound in Britain.
But Blair, who also liked to assume the mantle of a moral foreign-policy leader, said it's time to let bygones be bygones and was the first Western leader to make that trip to Libya and to shake his hand.
SIEGEL: With allusions to these - the pain of the past?
Mr. ABADI: With allusions to the pain of the past, certainly, but looking forward, quite concertedly. And there's an argument to be made that this will tarnish Blair's legacy.
SIEGEL: Well, there certainly were people in foreign policy, in military circles, who, as they watched the Mubarak regime come down, wondered nervously, will the people who succeed him, will they be adverse to U.S. interests in the region? Was Gadhafi advancing U.S. interests in the region? Do we think of him as somebody who was in some way a crypto-ally of Washington's in recent years?
Mr. ABADI: Aside from the money that was at stake in having ties with Libya, the United States, even if we were never close friends with Gadhafi, we were glad to have his hard-line support in the war on terror against al-Qaida. I don't think ties need to be warm for them to be justified in cool realpolitik that the West pursued in these years.
SIEGEL: Cameron Abadi, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ABADI: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Cameron Abadi is associate editor of Foreign Policy Magazine.
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