DURING HIS 39-YEAR rule as Libya's undisputed dictator, Muammar Qaddafi has picked up various titles, including "Brotherly Leader," "Guide of the Revolution," and "king of kings." The latter title was recently bestowed by 200 African kings and tribal rulers in a ceremony whose pomposity was exceeded only by its grandiose calls for African unity. Not content with these accolades, Qaddafi secured yet another badge of honor this week when the 53-member African Union elected him as its chairman.
"I hope my term will be a time of serious work and not just words," said the golden-robed Qaddafi in his inaugural speech. The "serious work" he has in mind involves the creation of a United States of Africa, defended by a single military and sharing a common currency. Qaddafi's election suggests that the African Union, established in 2002 to replace the Organization for African Unity, suffers from the same contagion of corruption and authoritarian rule that ravaged its predecessor.
The initial reaction of the Obama administration was, at best, evasive. State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked if he saw any problem working with the Libyan strongman, given his thuggish and mercurial style. Wood said nothing about the choice of Qaddafi, his sponsorship of terrorism, or his opposition to democratic freedoms. "In terms of our working with the AU, we're going to continue, because we have a lot of interests . . . trying to bring peace and stability and economic development and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the continent where it's needed," Wood said. "In terms of human rights issues, that will always be at the forefront of our foreign policy."
If the Obama White House intends to elevate human rights within U.S. foreign policy, then the State Department and its new boss, Hillary Clinton, should re-acquaint themselves with their file on Libya. Under Qaddafi, the country became a major state sponsor of terrorism and was responsible, among other atrocities, for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight that killed 269 passengers over Lockerbie, Scotland. Even the U.N. Security Council, often enfeebled by its moral cynicism, imposed an arms embargo and froze Libya's foreign assets. An officially Islamic state, Libya bans the existence of political parties and trade unions. Opposition figures are jailed or forced to flee the country. There is no freedom of the press--the state owns all print and broadcast media--or freedom of assembly. The judiciary remains under political control. Arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, and torture are commonplace. All mosques, overwhelmingly Sunni, fall under government scrutiny and must uphold the state's version of Islam. Minority faiths, including about 100,000 Christians, face restrictions on worship and freedom of speech.
It is true that, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Libya somewhat changed its tune: it accepted responsibility for the Pan Am bombing, renounced terrorism, and promised to dismantle its program to develop weapons of mass destruction. In June of 2006, the Bush administration ended Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Last year Libya's foreign minister met with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first such visit since 1972.
These are positive steps for a longtime pariah state, but do they represent anything more than short-term political necessity? The fact is that Libya's machinery of repression hasn't changed. It is a crime to publish anything deemed critical of Qaddafi's "Green Book," his rambling manifesto of Pan-Arabism and socialism, coated in Islamic ideals, which rejects representative democracy as "an obsolete experiment." There is no genuinely independent civil society, the historical prerequisite for political and social reform. Political corruption is rampant. The most recent report from Freedom House designated Libya as among its "worst of the worst" nations with regards to political and civil liberties." Anyone daring to challenge the regime or the Libyan state openly," according to Freedom House, "is in danger of arrest, torture, and imprisonment."
Is this the proud, progressive face of the African continent? The silence of the Obama administration over Qaddafi does not bode well for its Africa policy: the diplomatic temptation, acute among political liberals, is to "engage" authoritarian regimes while ignoring their domestic despotisms. (The Bush administration, though badly inconsistent in promoting its "freedom agenda," at least gave high-profile attention to democratic reformers.) Above all else, the African Union needs leadership that is democratically sound, economically liberal, and morally serious.