Dear President Obama:
This week, at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, President Obama will be presented with the opportunity to address challenges like the global financial crisis, international trade issues, food security, and climate change. Representatives from developing countries have been invited to join in discussions, with a special focus on issues that affect Africa. Leaders from around the world will likely be lining up for a handshake and scrambling for a photo opportunity with him, much like President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela did at the OAS conference this spring, hoping that some of his international popularity will rub off onto them.
One of the representatives at the head of the line, with hand outstretched, will be Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the man who has brutally ruled Libya as its "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution" for forty years after coming to power in a military coup. It would be a mistake for the President Obama to meet his extended hand, which has been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people, including a tragic number of Americans.
Colonel Qaddafi is an international terrorist, responsible for: a campaign of assassinations against Libyan dissidents in Europe; the murder of American servicemen in the Labelle disco bombing in Berlin; the murder of 270 innocents in the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing in 1988; and the murder of 170 more innocents in the UTA Niger bombing in 1989. He is responsible for the massacre of nearly 1200 prisoners at Abu Salim Prison on one day in June 1996. He supported the bloody campaigns of Charles Taylor in Liberia, and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone.
Most recently, Colonel Qaddafi was responsible for the death of Libyan democracy activist and prisoner of conscience Fathi al-Jahmi. The late Mr. Jahmi's plight was familiar to Vice President Biden. Then-Senator Biden was able to secure Mr. Jahmi's release for all of two weeks in 2004. The cynical Libyan government re-imprisoned Mr. Jahmi after a brief release for continuing to peacefully speak out in favor of democratic reforms like free elections and a free press.
This week at L'Aquila, Colonel Qaddafi will be attending as the chairman of the African Union and invited guest of Silvio Berlusconi. The G8 meeting marks a new stepping-stone to greater world influence and credibility in Qaddafi's long quest for the legitimacy he so craves. After being called the "mad dog of the middle east" by President Reagan, Colonel Qaddafi likely views a public meeting with the young, popular, President of the United States as confirmation of his self-perceived status as a leading light of the world. The "mad dog of the middle east" is probably salivating at the prospect of a historic photo opportunity with the son of a Kenyan immigrant who has risen to the world's most important job. It would be a historic mistake to satisfy Qaddafi's wishes.
When Colonel Qaddafi approaches with a crooked smile on his face and his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, President Obama should remember that the oppressive dictator behind that distorted mask has not stood in a legitimate election in nearly forty years of iron rule. He should remember the bizarre behavior that this so called "King of Kings" displays. The President should remember the activists and academics who peacefully advocated for democratic reforms and the restoration of the rule of law languishing without charges or hope for release in violent, secretive Libyan prisons. He should remember the activists and reformers in countries beyond Libya, watching to see how the President of the United States receives the unelected, anti-democratic leader of a military coup. Most of all, President Obama must remember the innocent American blood that stains the outstretched hand. President Obama should smile back if he must, and listen when Qaddafi speaks, as the President is admirably wont to do. But he should politely decline to reward Colonel Qaddafi's recent history of false reforms on top of a forty-year history of repression, violence, and terrorism with a handshake that would symbolize the respect he has not earned, and reward him with the legitimacy he does not deserve.