Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi

Since 2003, Libyan diplomats have been hard at work convincing the West that Libya is no longer interested in amassing weapons of mass destruction, blowing up Western airplanes or covertly financing armed movements abroad. Presenting this new face has been largely effective: sanctions, in place since 1982, have been lifted; Libya has been removed from the United States roster of terrorist nations; and the list of international trade agreements continues to grow.

As part of this public relations drive, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his officials have been keen to reassure Libyan critics that it is now safe to return to Libya. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of exiled Libyans have not returned. However, one did: Idrees Boufayed, a doctor living and working in Switzerland. On Sept. 30, 2006 he returned to Libya for the first time in 16 years. And on Nov. 5, he disappeared.

Throughout its 37-year rule, the Qaddafi government has found as many reasons to arrest its citizens as Libyans have found to abandon their country. Thousands of critics of the Qaddafi regime, inside and outside Libya, have either disappeared or been assassinated. My father, the political dissident Jaballa Matar, disappeared from his home in Cairo in March 1990. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead.

Astonishingly, on Dec. 29 — 55 days after his arrest — Dr. Boufayed was released. The Libyan authorities offered no explanation for his detention. And Dr. Boufayed, who had been a regular contributor to dissident Web sites, has remained uncharacteristically silent ever since. This change in behavior is not unusual: almost all political dissidents fortunate enough to be released have given up their criticism of the regime. The machinery of Colonel Qaddafi’s government is as effective as ever.

Now that the United States has incorporated the Libyan regime into its so-called war on terrorism, it is difficult to see what political pressure it can exert on the Libyan government to reform. Western governments have had the power to effect change in Libya only as long as the dictator’s government has hungered for the West’s acceptance. The short-sighted paranoia with which the war on terrorism has been managed has weakened any moral advantage the United States might once have had.

The cards surrendered were hugely undervalued: the United States could have compelled the Libyan dictatorship to do much more than just hand over its outdated weapons of mass destruction and compensate the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, with $2.7 billion — a sum that would be earned back in trade deals during the first week after sanctions were lifted.

Although America has highlighted the issue of human rights in its negotiations with Libya, none of the countries that now profit from a close association with the Libyan leadership has demanded the release, or even the trial, of the silenced political prisoners who crowd Libya’s prisons. No country made it a condition in negotiations that Libya investigate the countless cases of the “disappeared.” None of them compelled the Qaddafi government even to address the massacre at Abu Salim prison, where, one night in June 1996, more than 1,000 political prisoners were shot dead.

In its 2003 negotiations with Libya, the United States lost a golden opportunity to link the improvement of Libya’s dismal human rights situation to its acceptance into the international community. Indeed, it can be argued that the United States has instead helped worsen human rights in Libya. It has not only defended torture, which has softened the critical gaze on Libya’s own practice of torture, but also encouraged the practice by sending Libyans suspected of terrorism to Tripoli for “interrogation.”

Furthermore, Colonel Qaddafi has used the new panic — that the Islamist bogeyman will imminently shroud the world under his dark beard — as an excuse to silence the regime’s critics. That tactic has fomented rather than curbed religious extremism in Libya as elsewhere.

The impression that a bloodless battle has been won in Libya rests on an inflated notion of the threat the country, even with its rusty weapons of mass destruction, ever posed to the West. It misreads an act of diplomatic negligence toward the rights of the Libyan people as a victory for world peace.

Colonel Qaddafi deserves sole credit for Libya’s foreign policy U-turn. He has never found it necessary to devote himself to a single political ideology; his only consistent policy has been to guard his personal political survival. The United States and Britain understand this, but have only exploited it for their own myopic objectives, forgetting that Libya’s political development can lie only with its people.

Hisham Matar, the author of In the Country of Men, a novel.