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The United States is restoring full diplomatic relations with Libya, and the timing is not coincidental. In case anyone missed it, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spelled out the connection between this former rogue and the current axis of evil.
The decision to send a US ambassador to Tripoli demonstrates the "tangible results that flow from the historic decisions taken by Libya's leadership in 2003 to renounce terrorism and abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs... Libya is an important model as nations around the world press for changes in behavior by the Iranian and North Korean regimes," Rice said.
The message is simple: Come out with your hands up, give up your weapons (both terrorism and nukes), and the world will leave you alone.
This model, at first glance, makes much sense. Why, after all, do rogue states back terrorism and seek weapons of mass destruction in the first place? While Iran may be a special case in that it aspires to export its ideology, countries like Libya and North Korea used aggression to safeguard their regimes by intimidating their neighbors and extracting financial support.
In 2003, just weeks after Saddam Hussein was seen worldwide having his teeth ignominiously checked by an American medic, Muammar Qaddafi decided he too had had enough. Libya's leader no doubt reasoned: Why continue to suffer from sanctions and perhaps become the next American target when I can, just by giving up terrorism and nukes, obtain immunity for my regime?
Libya shows that the same rogue behavior that, in the pre-9/11 world, had been an asset toward regime maintenance could be turned into a liability that was worth giving up. Europe is now putting together an incentive package for Iran that is presumably built on this same thinking; if the alternative is enticing enough, perhaps rogue states can be induced to dramatically change their behavior.
When dealing with rogues, however, carrots don't work without very big sticks. In the Libyan case the international community had used big sticks, in the form of tough, mandatory economic and diplomatic sanctions for a long time before they bore fruit.
Then there is the issue of freedom and democracy. How can the West proclaim it is for these things when it is willing to sign off on repressive regimes, only because they stop doing what they shouldn't have done in the first place?
As an Egyptian analyst put it, "It's self-evident, that there is a retreat from democracy and that in the current atmosphere, the United States is aligning itself with nondemocratic regimes. Democracy is not going to be the point of departure for relations between the US and governments in the region."
According to the monitoring group Freedom House, Libya remains "one of the world's most closed and repressive societies. Freedom of speech is nonexistent... the penal code stipulates life imprisonment or the death penalty for those convicted of disseminating information that... 'tarnishes Libya's image abroad.'"
So how can the West reconcile its principles when it seems to be granting immunity to ex-rogues that remain brutal dictators? The answer, it seems, is a two-tiered system: actively promote popular regime change in the case of rogue dictatorships, while pushing a less aggressive - but real - democracy agenda in non-aggressive dictatorships.
Rogues like Iran should know that the price of their behavior is not just the pursuit of economic and other sanctions, but active Western support for dissidents, highlighting of their dismal human rights record and open support for the people against their oppressors. If a dictatorship, like Libya, ceases to threaten its neighbors, then the West would take a less active, longer term approach of speaking out in favor of human rights and political reforms, while showing acceptance of a more gradual rate of change.
There should be no illusions, however, regarding what it would take to fully apply the Libya model in the case of Iran. If it is to have any chance at all, the stick side of the equation must be dramatically amplified on all fronts: sanctions, promotion of popular regime change and advancing the option of military force against nuclear facilities. The collective weight of such measures will be measured, in part, by whether the Iranian regime continues to act as if time is on its side.