TRIPOLI, Libya – Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to his high-security personal compound on Friday, in symbolic recognition that after nearly three decades of animosity, the U.S.-Libyan relationship is officially normal – if not entirely friendly.
Gadhafi, once called a “mad dog” by President Reagan, shared a Ramadan meal with Rice, and inquired politely about her health and recent U.S. hurricanes. “We have a lot to talk about,” Rice told the long-time pariah as they met in a plush reception room of the Bab al-Azizia complex that U.S. warplanes bombed in 1986.
U.S. officials portrayed the meeting as the reward for a five-year rehabilitation that has seen Gadhafi dismantle his weapons of mass destruction program and begin settling claims for past acts of Libyan terrorism, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The government-controlled Libyan media put a different spin on it, reporting the meeting was proof “of how much the Americans need Libya,” a U.S. official said.
The Bush administration considers Libya’s reform as one of its top foreign policy achievements, and a model for other adversary states, such as Iran. The Rice appearance was the highest-level U.S. visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon stopped in Libya in 1957.
But Gadhafi, who has called Rice “my darling black African woman,” seemed to have a more casual attitude toward the encounter. He left Rice and the U.S. contingent waiting in their hotel for about an hour past the scheduled meeting time, until Rice ordered her motorcade to head toward the complex anyway. They circled it for about 15 minutes before it was clear the Libyan leader was ready to receive them.
Gadhafi had them ushered them into a reception room with a crush of TV crews and reporters. Gadhafi shook the hands of Rice’s male aides, but, in the habit of some Arab men, lay his right hand above his heart as a greeting to her.
Rice told Gadhafi that President Bush was “so excited” at the prospect of an improvement in U.S.-Libyan relations.
Even so, both Rice and Gadhafi have been making clear that mistrust still hangs over the relationship.
Talking to reporters en route from Lisbon, Portugal, Rice made clear that the visit was not a sign that “everything has been resolved between us. There’s a long way to go.”
In a TV address to the nation on Monday, Gadhafi said it was “not necessary for us to be friends with America,” and classified the two countries as “neither friends nor enemies.”
He said Ronald Reagan and Reagan’s ally, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were “almost insane” in their attitude about Libya in the 1980s.
The meeting was arranged only after Libyan officials finally signed a deal, which could be worth billions, to settle all claims against the Libyan government for the Lockerbie bombing and the 1986 bombing of a German disco that killed three and wounded dozens. Yet Libyan officials have yet to deposit any money in the fund – a subject Rice said she would broach with Gadhafi. Some members of Congress and victims’ families contend Rice should not have met with the Libyan until the claims were settled.
She said she also planned to take up the subject of Libya’s human rights record, which U.S. officials consider atrocious.