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Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin meets with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli in 2004.

Yousef al-Ageli/Reuters

In the hours they met in a tent in Tripoli, Pierre Pettigrew understood almost nothing of Moammar Gadhafi's rambling philosophy of politics. What he did know was that the world was offering the Libyan leader a reward for dropping his chase for nuclear weapons and his funding of international terrorist groups. And he still believes it was a bargain worth making.

Mr. Pettigrew, then Canada's Foreign Affairs minister, went to Tripoli in 2004 with then-prime minister Paul Martin, who recently blushed at the memory, saying he had obviously "misjudged" Colonel Gadhafi. But like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who led the international effort to bring Libya in from the cold, Mr. Pettigrew thinks it was a deal made with open eyes.

"We got what we were seeking, and for some years," Mr. Pettigrew said. "But clearly, none of us believed that he had become a great democrat."

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Was it enough to transform an international threat to a garden-variety domestic despot, even if he lived to kill another day? The leaders who traipsed to Tripoli have been castigated now. But faced with a similar bargain elsewhere, such as Iran, would the world, and Canada, do a deal again?

Business was one of the reasons why Mr. Martin went, why Canada kept engaging, why it sent Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon in 2009 to smooth ties that threatened business. But was it all a mistake?

"Did the world misjudge him? What else can you say when you see what happened today?" Mr. Martin told the CBC two weeks ago. But Mr. Pettigrew says there was never doubt about Col. Gadhafi's stripes.

"There was never any illusion. But there was an attempt at calming him down, which I think was successful for some years," Mr. Pettigrew said. "For some years, he did actually behave - internationally. Both on the nuclear-program front and the terrorism front."

Back in 2003, the Gadhafi regime was developing nuclear weapons and had financed terrorist organizations around the world. Sanctions imposed after its role in bombing an airliner over Lockerbie in 1988 had been suspended, but not officially lifted. In May of 2003, Libyan officials secretly approached Britain and the United States for talks on ending its nuclear chase.

This, essentially, was the bargain: Col. Gadhafi gave up nuclear weapons and funding international terror, and Western leaders endorsed the change. Mr. Blair visited in March of 2004, France's Jacques Chirac in November, and Mr. Martin in December.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Pettigrew spent hours talking with the Libyan leader about things such as his "green book" manifesto. "There was nothing we could understand about his discourse," Mr. Pettigrew said. But the larger bargain was clear.

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"Because the guy behaves this way [now] should it have prevented the negotiations to abandon the nuclear program? I don't think so. You take what you can out of these guys," Mr. Pettigrew said. "When your re-engagement actually produced results that are sort of favourable for some years, you count your blessings. You say, maybe a couple fewer planes went down."

Security was the primary goal, he insists, but there were business considerations. It was key for Libya: After years of UN sanctions, Libya wanted new capital and expertise to develop flagging industry. Western companies wanted in. Petro-Canada later paid $1-billion, and promised to invest billions more in oil fields, for a share of Libya's oil.

Was the explanation good enough? Not now, for many. But Queen's University's Louis Delvoie, a former Canadian diplomat in the region, said Col. Gadhafi went from being a threat to the world to something more common in the region: a repressive leader in his own country. "If you look at Gadhafi's regime [before the crisis] it is no better and no worse than a whole host of other regimes."

At any rate, Canada's engagement policy continued under the Conservatives. Senator Raynell Andreychuk led a 2008 trade mission. Canadian ambassador Sandra McCardell quietly signed a 2009 memorandum of understanding on civilian nuclear co-operation, a step toward reopening the nuclear-materials trade.

When the Harper government said it would send Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon to personally criticize Col. Gadhafi in Newfoundland as he flew home from a 2009 UN meeting, Mr. Gadhafi cancelled, and Libya threatened to nationalize Petro-Canada operations. Mr. Cannon then went to Tripoli to smooth it over.

If there's a new line to be drawn, the question now is where. When Canadian companies move out, others from China and elsewhere will move in, Mr. Delvoie notes.

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Another former politician, David Kilgour, trekked to Libya in 2002 as junior foreign minister to open a small Canadian office when UN sanctions had been suspended, but not lifted. He shares Mr. Martin's remorse.

"The world knew Gadhafi was a psychopath then and he's a psychopath now," he said. He now thinks business with many dictators should be barred and corporate-responsibility laws should set tougher restrictions.

But would the world never make the Gadhafi bargain again? Western countries have sanctions against Iran, but offer a resumption of business if it drops its nuclear weapons program. Would it be tempted to deal again?

Mr. Kilgour, a fierce critic of Tehran, isn't sure: "We'd have to approach these things very carefully."

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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