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Washington's 'media firestorm' over Libya

Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi boards a plane last August after being released from a prison in Scotland.
Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi boards a plane last August after being released from a prison in Scotland.
  • Release of man convicted in Lockerbie bombing a key topic in David Cameron's U.S. visit
  • Libyan freed from Scottish prison 11 months ago with three months to live; he's still alive
  • Fareed Zakaria: Issue of BP's lobbying effort for Libyan business ties renews matter
  • Zakaria: Case is largely a distraction from more pressing issues facing U.S., Britain

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time/5 p.m. Abu Dhabi/9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- The eruption of new controversy over the release last August of a Libyan man convicted in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, is a "media firestorm" that threatens to distract Washington from more pressing issues, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Controversy over the move cast a shadow over British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit this week and was a topic at the press conference Cameron and President Obama held.

Zakaria told CNN there are still legitimate questions to be explored on the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, including the role of BP in lobbying the British government for the resolution of issues with Libya.

The Libyan, who was reported to be suffering from prostate cancer, is still alive even though he was released on compassionate grounds because he reportedly only had three months to live.

"The Brits could have handled this whole thing better, but I think it's unfortunate that so much of Cameron's trip and his conversation with the president has been devoted to this issue that is really a throwback to the past, about an incident that happened 22 years ago," Zakaria said.

"These kind of media firestorms erupt and take over these summits, and you have to ask yourself, 'Is this really the most important thing for Britain and the United States to be dealing with when they have issues like Afghanistan or financial reform, that are bigger, more urgent ...and more forward looking?'

"These are the things that are going to affect ... the average American and his livelihood and his prosperity and surely we would want the president to be engaged fully on those issues, rather than a fact finding about a very terrible, tragic and cruel terrorist attack but one that took place 22 years ago."

Cameron, who took office following the election in May, described al Megrahi's release as "wholly wrong" and called the bombing, which killed 270 people, "the biggest mass murder in British history." He met with senators calling for Britain to investigate more fully the release but did not endorse their call for further investigation by the British government.

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Wednesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: Why is the story of the release of al Megrahi now resurfacing many months later?

Fareed Zakaria: There is a greater interest because of the BP connection because it's increasingly evident that BP was lobbying the British government pretty heavily to in effect resolve the issues with Libya, including the al Megrahi issue, to pave the way for BP to have a commercial relationship with the Libyans.

But I also think that it's puzzling how this has also suddenly become a great obstacle in Anglo-U.S. relations. Part of it does feel as though there are some U.S. senators who have decided to make political hay out of this situation and call for hearings. ... This whole event, let's remember, we're talking about something that's now 22 years old, and why it is suddenly taking up so much of the time and energy and attention of people on Capitol Hill and people in the administration is frankly a little puzzling.

CNN: In hindsight, what actually happened with al Megrahi's release?

Zakaria: There is something of a mystery here. Clearly BP was lobbying the British government and appears to have convinced them to at least seriously consider, if not actually authorize, some kind of a deal with the Libyans which would involve al Megrahi being released. However that never came to pass, and almost simultaneously, the Scottish government decided it was going to release al Megrahi on an entirely different set of grounds, which were the humanitarian grounds.

The release does seem troubling at several levels. Most importantly it does not appear that al Megrahi was in nearly the kind of medical distress that the Scottish government claimed he was in. Either that or his health has miraculously improved as he has returned to Libya. There is this question of whether the Scottish government was doing something for the British government to give it plausible deniability. There isn't any evidence that that's the case. ...

The timing is suspicious, and so I think it's fair that people should be concerned. ... These would have been understandable concerns a year ago. It's resurfacing now for this mixture of political and media-driven issues.

CNN: What do you think of the stance that David Cameron is taking?

Zakaria: I would say he's taking the position that this is ultimately a relatively minor irritant in a very broad relationship between the United States and Great Britain, and I think that that's fundamentally correct.

CNN: It's interesting that Washington also seems consumed with the incident that happened 24 years ago involving [former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee] Shirley Sherrod.

Zakaria: That to my mind shows poor judgment on the part of the Obama administration. It's a very similar problem, responding to these momentary tempests in teacups that are produced by a combination of political activists and then a media that's willing to fan these flames without any investigation into the situation -- without even talking to the woman. I don't know enough about the merits of the issue, but the image of an administration rushing to judgment so that the episode doesn't appear on the Glenn Beck show is not inspiring.

Looking at these kinds of issues, the management philosophy you want out of a president is not "man overboard" every time there's a crisis. The White House needs to recognize that part of its job, its leadership challenge, is not to succumb to every twist and turn of media or political outrage and do what it thinks is right.

You heard stories that the president will not be photographed with a banker, because the Huffington Post will have a headline about it. Part of being president is doing what's right even if the Huffington Post has the headline -- which by the way will change in 25 minutes.

CNN: Regarding Cameron, it's been reported that one of the items on his agenda was to ask the Obama administration to be more balanced in its dealings with BP. Do you think that it's appropriate for the British prime minister to make that case?

Zakaria: It's appropriate, but I think the truth is that the administration has been pretty balanced in dealing with BP with the exception of a week in which the president was being pummeled for not being tough and made a few ill-considered remarks in which he seemed to be taking a macho attitude. Thad Allen has worked with BP very well. And the reality is that the federal government had to get involved because of the spillover effects of the oil. ... Had something like this happened in Great Britain, I think David Cameron would be adopting pretty much the same attitude as President Obama.

CNN: Before this latest eruption, the U.S. government has been relatively quiet about the al Megrahi case. Why?

Zakaria: One of the reasons why this hasn't been front and center is, let's face it, we are trying to bring Libya in from the cold. We are trying to take a regime that for 35 years has been hostile to the West, funding terrorists and revolutionary movements all over the world and integrate it into the global community to a greater extent, make it a more responsible member of the world. Remember we got the Libyans to forgo their nuclear program.

So this is part of a very large reorientation effort toward Libya, and the Obama administration has largely continued the Bush policy of trying gently to move Libya in a more positive direction. I think there is an overall strategic goal here, which is to my mind worthwhile. ...

CNN: Can [Moammar] Gadhafi be trusted?

Zakaria: It's a very good question. Look he has given up his nuclear program, and he has done that decisively. There's no question the Libyans have been moving in a more responsible direction in the past five years than they had in the preceding 35. I think they are still a very complex regime, and it's very difficult to figure out who's running things, so the issue may not even be as simple as "Can Gadhafi be trusted" but rather, "Is the regime unified, and purposefully moving in one direction?" No, but it's certainly a lot better than it was in the past. The arrow is moving in the right direction very slowly and at times erratically.