- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
In the spring of this year Libya and the United States restored full diplomatic ties for the first time since 1981. The breakthrough came after Libya accepted responsibility and agreed to pay compensatory damages for terrorist attacks in the 1980s, cut its existing ties with terror groups, and renounced its weapons of mass destruction program.
The country’s new ambassador in Washington, Ali Aujali, says this is a “great time” in U.S.-Libyan relations. In an interview at the country’s new U.S. mission, a suite in the Watergate office building in Washington D.C., Aujali cites cooperation on everything from counterterrorism to humanitarian activities in Africa. But he is critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. pressure on Sudan over the Darfur crisis, and what he calls double standards in the Middle East—permitting Israel to have a nuclear program while pressing Iran to end uranium enrichment. Aujali also said he expected a resolution soon of the seven-year-old case involving five Bulgarian nurses charged with infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the virus that causes AIDS. He said the case will likely be resolved with some sort of international compensation package for the victims.
This is the year that, from the U.S. perspective, Libya “came in from the cold.” There’s a debate about whether it was the use of sticks or carrots that brought about a breakthrough in the relations. From Libya’s perspective, what changed that led to full diplomatic relations?
There have been changes in the environment, in the international relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we calculated from our side, we found ourselves that we were losing, especially from the economic point of view. I think the United States also [concluded] the same thing, they are losing politically, they are losing economically because giant American oil companies, they used to be in Libya for a long time and they have not been in the market for many years. And the other thing is we can be a very useful partner in fighting terrorism, in the relations in Africa, to try to put an end to the crisis in Africa. Our role in Darfur is very clear when we help the humanitarian assistance to go through Libya, which is the safest way, and I think [restoring diplomatic ties] was a good decision to reach.
I think some people look to Libya and say, “Is there a model for the U.S. impasse with Iran that can be followed in the way the Libyan relations were restored?”
I believe the United States also realized the best way to deal with Iran is to talk to the Iranians and I am glad to see there is maybe no such strong restriction to talk to Iranian officials. I think the only thing practical is dialogue and personal contacts between the peoples. Iran is an important country. Iran has a right to certain things; the United States and the global community have to realize that. I think you cannot deny any country’s right to use energy for peaceful research, for the good environment.
Libya was able to turn its policy around and say, “We’re going to change and get rid of our nuclear program.” That is something several other countries in the region are not able to do. Is Libya involved in any dialogue on a nuclear-free Middle East?
I think this is a very important issue that we have a Middle East free from the atomic [bomb] and weapons of mass destruction. This is important for the security, and for the development, and for the integration of the region. I believe weapons of mass destruction don’t bring security to anybody. That’s from our experience. The problem is we cannot have a free zone in the Middle East if we have a double-criteria policy. This is the issue. If we want to have a region free of weapons of mass destruction, of the nuclear, then you must have unique policy, straight policy, policies respected by the region. But with the double criteria policy, the credibility of the United States and even the [UN] Security Council and the superpowers, that will be in doubt.
In other words, a double policy involving Israel.
You know that this country, they have [a nuclear weapons program] and you don’t impose anything about it and [in the case of Iran] you just feel that there is a country that will have [a nuclear weapons program] and you are doing anything in your hands from sanctions, maybe even war, anything like that [to punish it]. I think the credibility of any policy like that is not in good shape.
How would you describe the relationship with the United States? In addition to the political and economic ties, is there increasing cooperation in terms of strategic issues, proliferation?
I think this is a really a great time in the relations between Libya and the United States. We’ve been able to establish or reestablish the confidence between our two countries. From the political point of view, the diplomatic relations, we’ve achieved the diplomatic relations since May 15 this year, from the economic point of view the American companies they are back to Libya, the oil industry especially. Many of them are looking forward to establishing business relations with Libya and from the educational relations now we are starting to have some Libyan citizens come back to the United States after twenty-five years of no Libyan citizens here and this is a big gap. We have now about twenty-seven students in the American universities and they are coming slowly but continuously. Concerning the cooperation to fight terrorism, I think it is great. There is a full cooperation between certain departments which deal with this issue. Concerning Africa, we are working very closely with the United States to defuse the tensions in Darfur.
You mentioned Darfur. The situation continues to worsen by all accounts. The UN has a resolution calling for a pretty strong peacekeeping force but the Sudanese reject that. Can Libya play a role in trying to ease that situation?
Libya is playing a very important role for that, in talking to the partners in the region and meeting [Sudan’s President Omar] al-Bashir. But also Sudan, they have their concern and I think we should understand the concern of the Sudanese government. I believe and I hope there will not be imposed any kind of sanction against Sudan because that means we [end] dialogue with the Sudanese government. I think we should keep the door open, we should collect our efforts and help our friends and be realistic when dealing with the issues. Of course nobody would justify what we’re seeing in Darfur and we don’t want to see any people killed but at the same time we have to look for how can we solve the issue. We have to think what is the other government’s right to protect their integrity.
So a UN blue helmet mission is not the answer?
When you talk about a UN peacekeeping force, I think the approval of the Sudanese government is essential. I don’t think that would be wise to send soldiers from the United Nations without their approval. I think maybe there may be a softening a little bit among Western [states] and the Americans. But also we have to be concerned about human rights organizations, they are just looking from one point of view and we really understand their awareness and their concern but at the same time it should not be an organized attack against the government of Sudan to force them or to humiliate them to a resolution they are not interested in having.
I think maybe we need to use all the means we have. For example, with the human rights organizations, we have an experience in Libya. We helped them, and we told them when they you go to Libya, “Please this is a new experience and this door is open for you. Keep this door open, use the right language, use the right tools to reach your goals, but if you just want to use the same criteria [you are] using in the Western countries and apply [them] to Libya or Sudan in this very short period that would be difficult.”
One of the toughest remaining issues between the Western countries and Libya is the case of the Benghazi six [five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian nurse charged by Libya with infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus]. The United States and other observers have complained that this is not a credible case. Do you see movement toward solving this case?
It is a very delicate domestic issue. 429 children were infected by this disease. I see and read all kind of explanations [and] sometimes it is just nonsense. It says this is a hygienic problem, OK. We have not only one hospital in Libya. We have hundreds of hospitals in Libya, why is this hygienic issue happening only in this hospital [in Benghazi]? What is wrong with Libyan-Bulgarian relations that we fabricate this issue against the Bulgarian nurses? Why? The Bulgarians, the eastern [European] countries, they participate in the Libyan development for a long time. We had with some of them a very close relationship and we still know many of them. There is no reason for Libya to do that.
The case is under the supervision of the courts, they have delayed and postponed and all this. No one in Libya, including Colonel [Muammar el-] Qaddafi, can interfere in this case. This is 429 civilians. That means 429 families. That means thousand of relatives involved and the only one who can deal with the issue is the courts. Of course, there is a tradition in Libya that we say money for blood – diya – that means if somebody kills somebody not intentionally or intentionally, there is a way we can solve this problem outside of the court and then they agree for some amount [of compensation] to give to the families. I think this is now [under consideration by] the European Union and the United States. They realize we have to figure out how we get out of this issue.
So is that diya still an option now?
It is an option now. I think there is the creation of a fund. There is a fund to which different countries and different human rights organizations [can contribute to], set up by Libyans and by the Qaddafi Foundation, and I am hopeful that resolution will be soon. I think we have been able to get rid of many outstanding files and I think this is one of them. I am very optimistic that maybe soon we will be able to reach a solution. But you still see that [there are] many contradictions in the way it is being treated by the Western media, by the Western scientists.
So to be clear, you are saying a solution lies in coming up with a mechanism to treat the victims and their families, to come up with an international mechanism?
To treat the issues from the point of view that to try to supply good medical care for the rest of [the victims’] lives and to try also at the same time to compensate the families. Some of them sold their houses, their lands just to seek treatment for the first time when nobody was aware what was going on.
President Bush in his address to the UN General Assembly focused on using moderates to bring about changes in the Arab world. Does Libya consider itself one of those moderate influences on democratization?
I think this is not only an American interest. This is an interest of countries in the Arab world, in North Africa. I think if you go to Libya you see there is a [satellite] dish on every house, there are even some private TV channels. I think the atmosphere in general is very encouraging.
You have to care about your security, your political policy also but I think it is very promising. From both sides the relationship is excellent now. As far as we have been able to reestablish the confidence. Before we didn’t know what the Americans really wanted from us.
Have you gained a new appreciation of the thinking in the White House about what concerns the United States on security matters? How is it different being here and seeing Washington as opposed to being in Tripoli and seeing it?
If I speak about the American people, you have great people. If we speak about the country, it’s a great country. If I speak about the American foreign policy, there are a lot of things to say. Your foreign policy, something has to be done about it. The situation in Iraq, the American invasion of Iraq, the role of America in the Middle East, I think that is what has to really be addressed with courage. You have to tell yourselves, “Yes we did something wrong.” [When] you consult your friends, don’t only consult the European Union and Western countries, you have some countries in the Middle East and they are aware of what is going on. And now the American credibility, unfortunately, is a very shaky situation. Things in Iraq are going worse, now people wonder what is going to happen, if there is an end for this and it is becoming a hot political domestic issue. Now I’m sure the government wants to find out how to get out of this situation. I don’t know. I don’t have any advice to give. If I had been asked before maybe I [would] have [had] a good one but not now. What we are seeing in Iraq is really horrible.
I was telling some American diplomat friends, “I have a very tough job here but your job is tougher than mine.”