Relations With Libya Continue to Thaw

The move to normalize relations between the U.S. and Libya accelerates next month when Muammar Kaddafi makes his first-ever trip to America to address the U.N. The arrival of Kaddafi is already creating problems for New York security officials: he travels with a massive, heated Bedouin tent. Libyan officials recently asked permission for Kaddafi to pitch it in Central Park. "The location for the tent is still an open question," says a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. (One alternative: coax Kaddafi, and his retinue of female bodyguards, to pitch the tent on Libyan-owned property in New Jersey.)

The prospect of the Libyan leader on U.S. soil is angering families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which the U.S. long ago pinned on Kaddafi's government. "On the political world stage, he should be a laughingstock, except for the fact that he's got blood on his hands," says Frank Duggan, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103. The families' anger was further inflamed by reports that Scottish officials are weighing the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the bombing, on the grounds that he is dying of cancer.

The diplomatic thaw began in 2003, under President George W. Bush, after Kaddafi renounced his nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. That led to a lifting of U.S. sanctions; the policy of forging closer ties is continuing under Obama. Shortly after Obama shook Kaddafi's hand at last month's G8 summit, Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, visited Libya and announced the U.S. was seeking "strengthened" military cooperation to fight Al Qaeda in North Africa. (Expanding U.S. military ties, including, eventually, U.S. weapons sales, has been a goal of Kaddafi's government, which last year signed a $2.4 million annual lobbying contract with the firm of former GOP House speaker Robert Livingston.) In addition, David Goldwyn, until recently the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association, a group founded by five major U.S. oil companies to "enhance the U.S.-Libya relationship," was recently named State Department coordinator for energy affairs. (Goldwyn, who apparently wasn't covered by Obama's lobbyist ban because he never registered as one, didn't return calls for comment.)

The senior State Department official concedes Kaddafi doesn't run a "model government," but that better relations make sense because Libya is "strategically located" and it abandoned its nukes program. "There's an opportunity to move Libya in a more constructive direction," says the official, who emphasizes that the administration isn't abandoning the Lockerbie families: both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder recently phoned the Scottish justice minister to say al-Megrahi should stay "where he is." The Libyan Embassy declined to comment.