This article was published in Foreign Service Journal on 04/01/2011
Relations between Libya and the U.S. have a turbulent history: War at the beginning of the 19th century; U.S. government support for Libyan independence after World War II; official and private-sector American engagement in the development of Libya’s oil wealth and human resources in the mid-20th century; Libyan terrorism and U.S. military retaliation in the 1980s; U.S.-engineered economic sanctions and isolation in the late 20th century; and restoration of diplomatic relations in 2006.
Hopefully, the 21st century will continue to feature positive interaction between Libya and the United States. But for that to happen, both sides must employ serious diplomacy and show mutual respect in order to build on shared interests.
Early History of Bilateral Relations
Our first policy toward Libya was appeasement. The young United States established relations with the Bey of Tripoli in 1796 and signed a treaty of peace and friendship. Behind the fancy diplomatic language, the reality was that in return for an annual U.S. government payment, the Tripoli-based corsairs, who had preyed on U.S. shipping, guaranteed its free passage. Along with being a military hero, President George Washington was a foreign policy realist. He correctly assessed that it was hard enough to maintain land forces and a modest navy to deal with the British, French, Spanish and other threats, and he warned against entangling alliances even with states that could have defended our commerce in the distant Mediterranean.
The Importance of Oil
The new U.S. policy was cradled in the rhetoric of morality dear to Americans – self-determination and independence of colonial peoples. It also reflected the power politics of the Cold War. With its vast spaces and year-round flying weather, Libya was the perfect place for an air base. Moreover, Libyans were among the poorest inhabitants of the world, with an annual per capita income of less than $50. Their postwar economy was based on subsistence agriculture, the export of esparto grass for fine paper and scrap metal from the battlefields. So rental paid by the U.S. and British governments for air bases looked like a good deal to a Libyan government with few options.
Even before Libya achieved independence in 1951, Washington started an aid program emphasizing badly needed secondary education, English-language and vocational training. While foreign government aid was desperately needed during this period, by the 1960s it was dwarfed in economic importance by the investments and training programs of foreign oil companies, especially the American companies. Libya’s first oil shipment was in 1961, and the country’s oil income expanded rapidly during the decade.
Movement Toward Reconciliation
Cautious Re-engagement with Tripoli