Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2001, page 48

Libya: Looking Toward a Post-Lockerbie Future

Libya: Who’s Isolating Whom?

By Janet McMahon

The British Airways flight from London to Tripoli provided the first hint of what lay ahead. The flight was packed—and not with Libyans. Businessmen from all over the globe—Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa—were flocking to the recently disembargoed country. There they hoped to avail themselves of opportunities opening up in Libya’s rich oil and natural gas sectors, as well as in construction, tourism, and just about any field imaginable (except distilleries). We three journalists were the only Americans on the flight—and we were in no position to make ourselves or Libya wealthy!

As the plane began to overtake the approaching Libyan shoreline, it was easy to imagine that we were on a bombing mission rather than passengers on a civilian airliner. For, indeed, that was the last U.S. encounter with this North African state. In April 1986, however, our plane would have been accompanied by some 170 American warplanes attacking Tripoli and Benghazi by night, and raining death on more than 100 children and adults—and, in a blatant assassination attempt, bombing the home of Col. Muammar Qaddafi and his family. (As Colonel Qaddafi pointed out a few days later, Libya never has tried to bomb the White House and its occupants.) Soon we would visit the Libyan leader’s still-demolished residence where, amid twisted wires and broken windows, pieces of ceiling still lay where they had fallen on his sons’ beds. On the wall of an adjoining room was a picture of an adorable, raven-haired little girl. On the wall near her bed was a picture of the toddler undergoing open-heart surgery in a futile attempt to save her life.

Americans, however, are lucky. Not only have we not experienced aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, or mortar and tank attacks—but the vast majority of people in the Middle East on whom the U.S. has inflicted this treatment, by proxy or otherwise, are able to distinguish between the American people and their government (a distinction Americans tend not to reciprocate). Thus we were received with warmth and courtesy in Libya.

Perhaps because it is not overcrowded, Tripoli is a relatively quiet city. No assaults on the ears from the constant honking of car horns. Nor—despite the fact that their country was colonized by Italy—do Libyans seem to engage in vociferous discussions accompanied by vigorous gesticulating. The atmosphere on the street reflects the quiet dignity and good humor which, we were to learn, characterize the Libyan people.

A decade of sanctions, while they clearly have caused scarcities, by no means have brought the country to its knees. Indeed, the streets of the Libyan capital are in much better repair than those of its American counterpart. While we saw example after example of decades-old machinery lacking a simple spare part, the response of every Libyan we asked about the effect of the sanctions was, “We have survived them.” They are justifiably proud of their accomplishments in the face of the U.N. and American sanctions, and of their ingenuity and determination in overcoming them.

According to an Aug. 5, 1996 White House fact sheet, “In January 1986, the United States imposed comprehensive sanctions against Libya that froze Libyan assets, and banned all trade and financial dealings with Libya. Two months later, U.S. Air Force and Navy jets bombed Libyan targets in retaliation for Libyan terrorist attacks on Americans in Europe. In March 1992, the United States supported the imposition of U.N. sanctions against Libya which prohibited the export of petroleum, military or aviation equipment to Libya; prohibited commercial flights to or from Libya; limited Libyan diplomatic representation abroad; and restricted Libyan financial activities.”

While the U.N. sanctions were “suspended” following Colonel Qaddafi’s agreement to turn over for trial the two Libyans accused of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the American sanctions on Libya remain in effect.

Driving into Tripoli from the airport, we saw that satellite dishes were an integral element of the skyline. Our hotel, however, did not offer CNN or any Western station, although some rooms were able to receive audio CNN. In his piece in the November 2000 issue of National Geographic, journalist Andrew Cockburn says Qaddafi told him, “Libyans can watch anything they want, but visitors should learn about Libya.”

We had left the U.S. just days after the presidential election, however. Eager to learn the results of that contest, as well as the latest developments in Palestine, we were reduced to asking virtually every non-American we met if they had heard the latest news. (Little did we realize, in our innocence, that we later would be grateful for a week’s respite from talk of chads and dimpled ballots!)

Because of the U.S. sanctions prohibiting Americans from spending any money in Libya, we were unable even to buy a bottle of water to quench our thirst, and were dependent on the gracious hospitality of our hosts even for such a mundane requirement. The degree to which that restriction increased our feeling of isolation was surprising—but informative. Not only as journalists, but as fellow human beings, even the slightest understanding of the effect of our actions on others is of the utmost benefit.

Certainly, compared with the punishing U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq, those on Libya were relatively benign, consisting primarily of a ban on air travel to and from the country. That ban, however, translated in real life into overnight ferry trips to Malta to catch a plane, regardless of whether one wanted to visit family members or conduct business, or even if one needed emergency medical treatment. Under the sanctions no Libyan was able to indulge a spontaneous decision or meet a sudden need if it involved the outside world. Almost worse than the physical isolation, we were beginning to comprehend, was the sense of being cut off and held back. A week of minor inconvenience made us humbly aware of the fact that the people we were talking to had undergone an entire decade of infinitely more frustrating isolation and helplessness.

And many of the people we met knew America and Americans very well. Having studied here or worked with Americans in Libya, they spoke American English, told American jokes, were very conversant with American culture—and like Americans! This generation of Libyans, however, soon will be replaced by a generation which has a similar understanding of and feeling for England, for example, or the other European countries which welcome them as students in their universities.

In a country based on a desert tribal culture, the leader of which disdains city life (see article on p. 50), we undoubtedly did not become acquainted with an essential part of Libya during our weeklong stay in Tripoli. We did, however, become acquainted with many urbane, knowledgeable, ingenious and dedicated people, and began to get a hint of the country’s many resources, human, natural and historic alike. As we left the country, we could not help thinking what a waste the sanctions have been—and not only for Libya.

Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report.

SIDEBAR 1

U.S. Sanctions on Libya

On Jan. 7, 1986, the United States imposed economic sanctions against Libya that broadly prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in unauthorized financial transactions with Libya. A partial list of prohibited activities includes: the export to Libya of all goods, services, or technology; the import of goods or services of Libyan origin; engaging in the performance of a contract in support of an industrial, commercial, or governmental project in Libya; or dealing in any property in which the Government of Libya has any interest. The economic sanctions also prohibit Americans from working in Libya.

In addition, the U.S. restrictions prohibit citizens from engaging in unauthorized travel-related transactions to and within Libya. Exempt from the prohibition are transactions relating to travel for journalistic activity by persons regularly employed in such capacity by a news-gathering organization. U.S. citizens may engage in travel-related transactions for the sole purpose of visiting immediate family members in Libya, provided that those seeking to travel register with the Office of Foreign Assets Control or the U.S. Interests Section at the Embassy of Belgium in Tripoli.

In July 2000 former President Bill Clinton considered removing Libya from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. Instead, however, Congress renewed U.S. sanctions. That same month the administration approved a visit by a group of U.S. oil companies to Libya to inspect American frozen assets there. Sanctions have prevented Libya from upgrading its oil infrastructure. Now, with all but U.S. sanctions lifted, Libya is beginning to undertake long-postponed improvements with European and Asianassistance. The country also is eager to open itself to Western investment. When American sanctions finally are lifted, U.S. oil companies will be able to re-engage in Libya’s lucrative oil sector—if foreign companies haven’t already beaten them to it.

—DCH