The Cable

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.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Chile, Brazil, Japan, Quartet, Armenian genocide

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Tuesday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent three hours in Santiago, Chile on Tuesday, at the airport, where she talked earthquake response with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and President-elect Sebastian Piñera. She brought 25 satellite phones with her as gifts. The U.S. is planning to send there eight water purification systems, a mobile hospital unit, an autonomous dialysis machine, electrical generators, medical supplies, a portable bridge, portable kitchens and maybe helicopters. Wednesday, she will be in Brasilia to see Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
  • Crowley said the U.S. is encouraging, but not directly mediating, ongoing talks between India and Pakistan.
  • No change in the U.S. plan to wait until May for the Japanese government to figure out what it wants to do about a Marine Corps base in Okinawa. The U.S. still expects Japan to make up its mind by May, despite comments by a Japanese official that a decision has been made. "This is a decision for Japan to make," said Crowley, "And there's no change, in our view, that the realignment roadmap is the best plan for reducing the burden on Okinawa while maintaining our treaty commitments and our ability to defend Japan and maintain peace and security in the region." Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs Jeff Bader arrive in Tokyo Thursday.
  • Steinberg and Bader arrived in Beijing Tuesday, but Crowley wouldn't say if that's a sign the Chinese are over their anger about recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting. "If this suggests that we are refocusing on the future and, you know, the important issues that we can work on together, I think we are encouraged by this," Crowley said, noting that Iran was at the top of the agenda. President Hu Jintao will come to the U.S. for the next Strategic Economic Dialoguem "sooner rather than later," he added.
  • "We have no particular timetable," for moving new Iran sanctions at the UN, according to Crowley, despite reports that the U.S. floated a draft resolution this week. Crowley wasn't aware of any drive to allow more Iranian asylum seekers into the U.S., but did say, "We've seen this now coming on nine months, this fundamental split, you know, between the regime and the people. And we certainly, you know, continue to look for ways to support the Iranian people in their efforts."
  • No firm schedule on the next round of Quartet talks about the Middle East, following Clinton's discussion about it with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "I'm not sure we've heard from the EU yet, but if everyone is agreeable, the secretary will be there," Crowley said.
  • The State Department is refusing to take sides in the dispute between Turkey and Armenia, which is going to be on display Thursday when the House takes up a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide. "We cannot afford to look at this in zero sum terms; that somehow scoring a point on one side, you know, is a loss for the other," said Crowley, "We think that there is ample room for Turkey and Armenia to evaluate the historical facts as to what happened decades ago."

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