By Tom Pfeiffer - Analysis
RABAT (Reuters) - Washington’s first ambassador to Libya in 36 years takes up his post this month, but neither side seems ready for true friendship.
The United States is loath to fully embrace a country it accuses of severe human rights abuses and whose leader Muammar Gaddafi strove for decades to thwart U.S. interests.
Gaddafi has made it clear relations with Libya’s former foe will be business-like at best. Since U.S. sanctions were lifted four years ago, Tripoli has favored mostly European and Asian firms for multi-billion-dollar nuclear, rail and road deals.
“The Americans would like to attach conditions to what they want to do in Libya and keep talking of human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” said Libyan political analyst and university professor Mustafa Fetouri. “We consider this to be interference in our internal domestic affairs.”
Libya has emerged from isolation after it abandoned weapons of mass destruction programs and paid compensation for bombings for which it was blamed by the West.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told Reuters last week the compensation deal “opens the horizon to a normal relationship of the kind we might have with any country.”
Analysts said the improved ties with Libya instigated by U.S. President George W. Bush were unlikely to unravel under his successor Barack Obama, who has set out a vision for foreign policy based on diplomacy, internationalism and alliances.
“I don’t see a real change under Obama, but the U.S. will be watching that there is no backsliding on what Libya has agreed to,” said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya specialist and professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
American firms won a clutch of oil exploration licenses since sanctions ended in 2003, but lingering suspicion still holds Washington back from full engagement.
“In the U.S. there is a certain skepticism and reluctance to be drawn into Gaddafi’s economic development schemes,” said Vandewalle. “Beyond the oil and gas industry it will be a lot tougher for American companies.”
U.S. officials say the breakthrough with Libya opens potential for cooperation in diplomacy. One senior Washington official, who asked not to be named, cited concerns about Iran’s nuclear program as one area where the two countries had collaborated.
Libya backed the U.S. push for tougher sanctions against Iran at the United Nations, while other nations with closer ties to Washington, such as South Africa and Indonesia, did not.
The official said he could see the United States selling “non-lethal” arms to Libya like helicopters, transport aircraft and communications equipment within the next few years.
But Fetouri said U.S. firms had been deliberately sidelined from Libyan government investments worth billions of dollars since the end of sanctions.
“Why are we taking the Russians or Germans when we could take the Americans, who are often more advanced technically speaking?” he said. “There can be no other explanation than the fact we like it that way.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a historic but brief visit to Tripoli in September, meeting Gaddafi and exchanging gifts. She said her visit proved the United States had no permanent enemies.
The atmosphere was warmer, however, when former Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tripoli in April and agreed to cancel $4.5 billion of Libyan debt to unlock big military and civilian export orders.
Gaddafi hailed Putin as “our great guest” and the Russian leader toured Gaddafi’s compound destroyed by a U.S. air strike in 1986 that killed about 40 people. “I bring my tribute to the victims,” he wrote in a guest book. “We share your grief.”
Politics, not economics, look set to dictate Libya’s trade and investment choices for now.
Apparatchiks still control most of the state-led economy, although Gaddafi himself seems less involved in day-to-day affairs and his Western-leaning son Saif al-Islam has pushed tentative liberal reforms.
“Even though we’re moving slowly toward the post-Gaddafi period, the system is still functioning as if nothing really happened,” said Vandewalle.
U.S. Commerce Department Assistant Secretary Israel Hernandez said on October 6 that trade with Libya was growing fast and he wanted to help American firms target business in infrastructure, education, health, tourism and agriculture.
But U.S. experts say their country’s role may be limited by Libya’s proximity to Europe and the fact the U.S. had less of a competitive advantage in some sectors needing the most investment.
Some of the best chances lay in energy, complex industrial installations, IT and aerospace, said David Mack, adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former diplomat to Libya.
“There has been too much history for the U.S. to resume the dominant position it enjoyed in oil and gas in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Mack.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)
Editing by Matthew Tostevin