Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a congressional panel on Thursday morning that the State Department is "suspending our relationship with the existing Libyan embassy" in Washington. Her announcement is only the latest episode in the saga of what is now, essentially, two competing Libyan diplomatic posts in Washington.
On one side of town is Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali's residence, nestled in the luxurious Kalorama neighborhood where dozens of foreign envoys retire when they go home from a day's work. There was a big celebration at the residence on Feb. 25, when Aujali denounced Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and with the help of some embassy staff replaced Libya's green Qaddafi-era flag with the red, green, and black pre-Qaddafi flag, which the Libyan opposition has adopted as its standard.
On the other side of town, behind a non-descript door marked "Libyan Liaison Office" inside the Watergate office complex, is the actual Libyan embassy -- a relic of the pre-2006 era when the United States and Libya did not have formal diplomatic relations.
Aujali claimed that the embassy was "under my control" in an interview with Foreign Policy last week. But his assistant, Katie White, told The Cable at that point that Aujali was "working from home" that week and hadn't been to the actual embassy office in a while. White said that the embassy's second in command was running the embassy office, a man named Mr. Fatih, who doesn't speak English. (The spelling of his name cannot be confirmed.)
But Fatih hasn't renounced Qaddafi, so is the embassy office still loyal to the regime? White wouldn't say. So your humble Cable guy went there today to find out.
The Libyan embassy office, which is guarded by uniformed secret service guards and armed private security, shows no indications that there has been any change in Libya whatsoever. A large picture of Qaddafi hangs on the wall in between the green regime flag and the flag of the United States. A stack of copies of Qaddafi's manifesto, known as The Green Book, sits on the table. Embassy officers file in and out, as if going about their regular business.
Eventually, an embassy staffer came past. Gracious but uncomfortable, she said that Fatih was out of the office for a few days on "personal business." Asked who was in charge of the embassy, Aujali or Fatih, she responded, "It's very confusing, even to us."
"It's like a classroom, if the professor is away the assistant is in charge," she continued, trying to explain that both Ali and Fatih were still involved in the embassy's management. But didn't the fact that one of them had rejected Qaddafi and one had not affect how the post functions? So who was in charge of the Libyan embassy and its staff?
"Honestly, I don't want to know," she said.
The State Department has only added to the confusion over who represents Libya in Washington. After Aujali denounced Qaddafi, the State Department initially transferred recognition to whoever was left at the Qaddafi-loyal embassy office.
On March 1, the same day protesters unsuccessfully struggled to physically tear down the Qaddafi flag from the embassy office, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Aujali "no longer represents Libya's interests in the United States."
Two days later, The Cable reported that the State Department had changed its mind and now considered Aujali as Libya's "chief of mission" in Washington and, as such, would deal with him directly. Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa had sent the State Department a fax telling them not to deal with Aujali, but State decided to ignore the communiqué because they were not able "verify its authenticity," a State Department official told The Cable.
That explanation was viewed by the State Department press corps as being too clever by half. Couldn't State just call Musa and confirm the fax? Was there really a suspicion that the fax could have been a fake? State was able to avoid that question: Musa stopped returning their calls.
But on March 7, Crowley confirmed that Kusa had called Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman on March 4 to talk about the situation in Libya. As for the status of the Libyan embassy in Washington, it never came up.
"Musa Kusa called to say hello, and he did not bring up the status of the ambassador. Neither did the Assistant Secretary Feltman. So our review is ongoing," Crowley said.
The "review" is an illustration of the balancing act the State Department has been playing as it tries to reach out to the Libyan opposition -- while still maintaining its relationship with the Qaddafi government.
Particularly following France's decision today to recognize the anti-Qaddafi movement as the "legitimate representative of the Libyan people," the Obama administration is under pressure to engage the opposition. Clinton will meet with Libyan opposition leaders when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia later this month.
But if the Libyan embassy in Washington is no longer able to talk to the State Department, what should they do? "We expect them to end operating as the embassy of Libya," Clinton said this morning.
What that means for Ali, Fatih, White, and all the other embassy staff caught up in this mess is just as unclear as the future of Libya itself.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.