Nearly 15 years after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, former diplomats and Arab world experts maintain the old Muammar Qaddafi — the one behind numerous terrorist attacks in the 1980s — has curtailed his rogue ways and is even signaling that he would like to establish a relationship with the U.S. government.
While some U.S. officials have acknowledged the merits of creating diplomatic ties with Libya, they are firm in their insistence that a new relationship can only come when Qaddafi owns up to the Lockerbie bombing. All 259 aboard the New York-bound plane and 11 people on the ground perished when a bomb allegedly planted by two Libyan agents exploded on Dec. 21, 1988.
But despite having handed over the two suspects and even offering to pay victims' families $2.7 billion, Qaddafi still seems — even after all these years — incapable of an apology.
David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, says Qaddafi today doesn't display the same recklessness or nationalistic demagoguery he did when he ordered a French airliner shot down in 1989, authorized the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986 and reportedly funded the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.
"He makes less and less of his outrageous statements directed at the West," said Mack. "I believe there is plenty of evidence that Qaddafi has become a wiser, more cautious individual than he was when we had the confrontations that led to Lockerbie."
"He certainly has become calmer and less revolutionary," said Mary Jane Deeb, an Arab specialist at the Library of Congress. "He has decided to portray himself as a statesman."
Seeking to Have Sanctions Lifted
Experts agree that Libya has altered its tactics dramatically.
"By all measures, Libya has changed its behavior," said Richard Nelson of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based group that offers advice on establishing relations with adversary countries.
"They have a pretty good record in terms of getting out of the terrorism business," he said.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Qaddafi was one of the first Arab leaders to issue a statement of condolence to the United States."It is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them in these horrifying and awesome events which are bound to awaken human conscience," he said.
State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan confirms Qaddafi even provided intelligence on al Qaeda cells to the U.S. government, although he said, "The intelligence was a 'three' on a scale of one to 10" and that "they didn't really tell us anything we didn't know or suspect."
Deeb said there are several factors are behind Qaddafi's attempted rapprochement with the United States — namely the post-Lockerbie sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States.
"Libya was treated like a pariah state," Deeb said. While European sanctions have since been lifted, Libya badly needs the investment that U.S. oil companies and tourism could bring.
And like the United States, Qaddafi views Islamic fundamentalists as a threat. "There's a convergence of interests here in curtailing the Islamists," said Deeb.
Mansour el-Kikhia, a Libyan exile and professor of international relations at the University of Texas at San Antonio, believes the U.S. war with Iraq may have hastened Qaddafi's interest in cozying up to the United States.
"They look at Iraq and say, 'We could be next,' " said el-Kikihia. "And this scares the dickens out of them."
But ABCNEWS' George Stephanopoulos, who traveled to Tripoli to meet with Qaddafi, found the Libyan dictator still thinks America is to blame for strengthening al Qaeda and making Osama bin Laden "a prophet" in the Arab world.
To read excerpts from Stephanopoulos' interview with Qaddafi, click here.
"Col. Qaddafi clearly wants to reach out the West and get those sanctions lifted," said Stephanopoulos. "But he is also clearly angry at America for what they did to him in the past and what they're doing in the Middle East today."
Although Stephanopoulos asked Qaddafi several times about Lockerbie, Qaddafi evaded acknowledging responsibility.
Time to Switch From the Stick to the Carrot?
Whether Qaddafi broaches that divide remains to be seen.
"The ball is clearly in Libya's court," says Sullivan.
If Qaddafi were to issue a statement admitting responsibility for Lockerbie, Sullivan said, the United States would begin a dialogue with Libya that could lead to its removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the lifting of U.S. sanctions against the North African nation.
If that apology were to come, Mack said it would be wise for the United States to lift sanctions and establish a diplomatic dialogue.
"Libya can be an important ally in the war against terrorism," he said.
Deeb concurred. "If we continue using only the stick and never using the carrot, our stick then loses its power to change the behavior of states," she said.
El-Kikhia cautioned that while Qaddafi seems to build ties, that doesn't mean he's completely reformed.
"He has been in a box since 1986 and he is desperately trying to get out of this box," said el-Kikhia. "The Lockerbie [issue] is a shackle, and if the U.S. removes that shackle, it sets free a wiser monster."