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U.S. ambassador to Libya urges greater engagement with North African dictatorship

Between the warm welcome in Tripoli for returning convicted Pan Am 103 bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi in August and the 95-minute tirade by dictator Muammar Qaddafi at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the Libyan government has perhaps not made Gene Cretz's job easy in recent months.

But Cretz, who became the first ambassador to Libya in more than 36 years last December, argued that continued engagement with the people and the government of the North African nation remains in the interests of the United States and the global community.

Cretz discussed diplomacy and U.S.-Libyan relations with about 100 students and faculty members in the Plant Sciences Building Oct. 7.

The ambassador, in the U.S. for a brief "damage-control" visit, said that despite recent events, the Libyan government has been working steadily to regain standing in the international community since 2003, when Qaddafi announced plans to abandon the nation's nuclear weapons program, denounced terrorism and compensated victims of past acts of terror.

In 2008, Libya made its final payment to the Pan Am 103 victims' compensation fund. Meanwhile, Cretz said, the Libyan government has been working to open the country to international business, privatize its education and health care sector and overhaul its bureaucracies.

"It is important to note what a massive undertaking that has been," he said. "Libya effectively has been attempting to make up for 40 years of systematic stagnation."

The ambassador, who was nominated to the post by former President George W. Bush in 2007, said he is working with Libyan counterparts to improve security and counterterrorism in the region, and to bring Western-style education and exchange opportunities to Libyan students.

"The importance of people-to-people diplomacy between Americans and Libyans cannot be overstated," Cretz said. To that end, the United States has opened consular services in Tripoli, making it possible for Libyans to apply for U.S. visas without having to travel to a third country, and is increasing opportunities for Libyan students to study in the United States.

Calling Qaddafi's views on international relations -- and other things -- "unique," Cretz said that while the two countries have their share of differences, Libya has made giant strides toward transforming itself in recent years.

"Clearly this relationship is not an easy one, and it will not be an easy one," he said. "We can never forgive, and we can never forget the terrorism perpetrated against our citizens."

At the same time, he said, "we need to recognize that in Libya's 5 million-plus-strong population there is a reservoir of goodwill toward Americans" -- and continued engagement is in both counties' national interest.

To audience questions about his role as ambassador, Cretz said being an effective diplomat boils down, in many ways, to being able to establish trust.

"You need a knowledge base," he said, but "you have to listen to people; you have to like them."

The emphasis on trust resonated for Christie Gibson '10, an economics major and executive vice president of the Cornell International Affairs Society, which hosted Cretz's visit.

Building trust "leaves the other country in a perfectly fine position to follow along and be dignified and to say 'yes we're going to cooperate too,'" she said.

The event was co-sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Alice Cook House, the Departments of Government and Near Eastern Studies, the Comparative Muslim Societies, the National Security Law Society, the International Student Programming Board, the ILR Global Affairs Club, Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIESEC and the Cornell International Affairs Review.

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Sabina Lee