is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation
for Defense of Democracies
You won't see it on the evening news because TV cameras are not allowed into the dungeons of Libya. But somewhere in the prison system of Moammar Gadhafi, held in solitary confinement for almost four solid years now, Libya's leading democratic dissident is reportedly dying - 66 years old, too weak to speak, his skin discolored, his legs swollen.
His name is Fathi Eljahmi. His offense has been to speak up for the cause of political pluralism in Libya, and to do something that we in free societies do daily - criticize his country's leadership. In Libya, that means he tried to call to account the despotic regime of Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 38 years.
We know something of Eljahmi's current condition because both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently issued calls for his release from prison on the humanitarian grounds that he is gravely ill and in urgent need of medical care.
But there are bigger reasons than that to call for Eljahmi's release, and it is not only human rights organizations, or private commentators, who should be doing so. It is time for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush himself to step up to the plate and redeem - with specific reference to Gadhafi's abuse of Eljahmi - a vital pledge made more than five years ago, that "America will call evil by its name."
Bush made that promise in a landmark speech delivered at West Point in June 2002, charting American foreign policy in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In that speech, Bush said "moral clarity" had been "essential to our victory in the Cold War." Transposing that lesson to the new millennium, Bush warned: "Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong." He rejected that approach, affirming instead that "we are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name."
But, increasingly, polite diplomacy of exactly the sort Bush decried has been creeping back into America's dealings with tyrants. The template has been Libya. What began in 2003 as America's diplomatic triumph of persuading Gadhafi to peacefully give up his nuclear bomb program has morphed into a policy in which the welcome mat just keeps unrolling for Gadhafi.
When the Bush administration reached its deal with Gadhafi in late 2003, Eljahmi had already spent more than a year as a political prisoner in Libya. In early 2004, at the request of Sen. Joe Biden, then visiting Tripoli, Gadhafi in an apparent show of good faith released Eljahmi. Bush praised this move, mentioning Eljahmi by name, and saying, "We stand with courageous reformers."
Upon his release, Eljahmi began speaking up for political reform in Libya. Within the month, Gadhafi had him back in prison, where he has been held, mostly incommunicado, since late March 2004. In all that time, there have been no more public mentions of Eljahmi's name from the White House.
Gadhafi, meanwhile, has hit the jackpot as America's prime example of a rogue regime on rehab - presumably a case study for the likes of Iran and North Korea of how good life can get for tyrants if only they will forego an interest in nukes. Astride the oil wells of Libya, Gadhafi has enjoyed a parade of high-level visitors, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and he has been welcomed in Paris. This year, with no protest from the United States, Libya gained one of the 10 rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council. Last month, Rice treated the Libyan foreign minister to a personal tour of the White House.
So, we now have the Bush administration remaining politely low-key about Gadhafi's grotesque stifling of Libya's leading democratic dissident. That is not only wrong, but foolish. If Eljahmi has been isolated and silenced in Libya, the least America's leaders can do is speak out for him, tell the world he is not forgotten - and call evil by its name.