Obama administration hopes to deepen Libya ties

Obama administration hopes to deepen Libya ties

Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, said Tuesday that the United States is hoping to “put some flesh” on the bones of American efforts to deepen ties between these two former foes.

He outlined a number of steps the two countries might take in the coming year, including closer military-to-military relations, U.S. training of Libyan forces, a new trade agreement, and a human rights dialogue. The goal, he said, was to build a working relationship that can survive the “vicissitudes of politics” — a thinly veiled reference to the mercurial ways of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose most recent call for a “jihad” against Switzerland has complicated his country’s drive to fully rejoin the international community after years of isolation.

Cretz made the remarks at an invite-only luncheon organized by the Middle East Institute and underwritten by Bechtel and Coca-Cola. Libya’s man in Washington, Ali Aujali, also spoke at the event, and the two men had kind words for one another in front of the crowd of 36 people.

The only sharp point of disagreement came when Aujali spun the warm welcome Abdelbaset al-Megrahi —  the man convicted of murdering 270 people during the 1988 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland — received in Tripoli last August as little more than a traditional Arab homecoming (a case he’s made before).  Cretz countered that it was in fact a “hero’s welcome,” and reiterated the State Department’s displeasure at the move.

Coming on the heels of the first official U.S. trade mission to Libya in nearly four decades, the luncheon would seem to suggest that the drive to fully normalize relations that began in 2004 with Libya’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction is proceeding apace.

Don’t get your hopes up, analysts said.

Dana Moss, an expert on U.S.-Libya relations, cautioned that Libya’s system of personal rule would make progress a tough slog. Cretz acknowledged as much, saying that Libya lacked “clear institutional structures” that could engage with U.S. diplomats.

A former State Department official complained that the Libyans had generally proven unreliable partners, lurching from initiative to initiative without a clear plan. She pointed to Libya’s inability to develop a strategy for purchasing U.S. military hardware — currently restricted to non-lethal weapons — as evidence of the country’s dysfunction.

“They don’t know what they want, and it’s not clear who has the authority to make decisions,” agreed Moss. “Everyone’s sort of covering their own asses,” she said, pointing to high turnover among Libyan officials and the pervasive risk of being punished for straying from an often unclear government line.

Much may depend on who wins a brewing power struggle between Qaddafi’s sons and would-be heirs, Mutassim and Seif al-Islam. Seif, with his Saville Row suits and London School of Economics degree, is seen as the more pro-Western son, whereas Mutassim leads a hard-line faction that is deeply skeptical of change.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said it was critical that Libya’s notorious Ministry of the Interior be part of any dialogue on human rights. The Ministry of Justice has been a force for modest change, she said, but needed U.S. support to “try to bring the Ministry of the Interior to heel.”

Whitson has been visiting Libya for five years and recently returned from Tripoli, where she says she saw a number of “breakthroughs” in Libya’s engagement with human rights issues. “There’s definitely volatility” in Libyan politics right now, she said — a sign that change is at least conceivable after years of stagnation.

Whitson expects the United States to find more cooperation on military matters, as the Libyans are desperate to upgrade their training and equipment. “They lost a war against Chad, for God’s sake,” she said.

The former State Department official downplayed U.S. companies’ interest in investing in Libya, which is flush with oil revenues and is embarking on a massive $130 billion infrastructure build-out. “There’s still too much risk,” she said.