Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today in Istanbul that the United States now recognizes the Libyan rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC) as the country's official government. But that's only the beginning of the drive to get the rebels the financial and diplomatic help they are pleading for.
It took a full four months following the White House's decision to attack Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for the administration to abandon its recognition of Qaddafi's regime. The administration played all sorts of word games, such as calling the TNC "the legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people," but such statements weren't enough to enable the TNC to get their hands on some of the over $30 billion of frozen assets the rebels say they need to help the Libyan people and successfully wage war against the Qaddafi regime.
The final administration decision to officially recognize the TNC was made at a principal's committee meeting at the White House on Thursday, while Clinton was on the plane to Istanbul. Undersecretary of State and deputy secretary-nominee Bill Burns attended on behalf of the State Department. It was the third high-level meeting on the topic in the last two weeks.
Clinton announced the U.S. decision to recognize the rebels after hearing from the TNC leaders at the Libya Contact Group. "The assurances the TNC offered today reinforce our confidence that it is the appropriate interlocutor for the United States in dealing with Libya's present and addressing Libya's future. That is why I announced earlier that until an interim authority is in place, the United States will recognize the TNC as the legitimate governing authority for Libya, and we will deal with it on that basis. In contrast, the United States views the Qadhafi regime as no longer having legitimate authority in Libya," she said.
"We still have to work through various legal issues, but we expect this step on recognition will enable the TNC to access additional sources of funding."
Indeed, there are a number of legal issues to sort out. First of all, it's unclear how the various U.N. and U.S. sanctions that have been levied on Libya since March will now be applied, considering that the TNC is now seen as the "Libyan government."
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 prohibits sending arms to Libya. Does that now apply to the rebels? Does the White House now have to rescind executive orders on Libya, some of which call for restrictions aimed against the "Government of Libya"?
Former Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Cable in an interview today that there are several issues left to be resolved before the TNC gets its hands on Qaddafi's frozen assets.
For example, he said that the U.N. sanctions that freeze the assets of the Libyan government represent another obstacle the administration would need to overcome.
"The financial institutions that hold these assets are going to require explicit permission before they will let the money go anywhere," said Levey. "The administration must figure out a way to provide legal assurance to anyone holding these assets that if they release them to the rebels, they are abiding by their legal obligations."
On the diplomatic front, a number of questions remain unanswered: Will the U.S. embassy in Tripoli be reopened in Benghazi? Will U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz now go to Benghazi, or will resident envoy Chris Stevens be named ambassador? "We haven't yet made a determination on any further formal steps there in terms of titles and so forth," a senior State Department official said.
Will the United States push for TNC recognition at the United Nations? "In terms of formal membership in international institutions and the like, that's something we're continuing to look at and consult with others on," the official explained.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), the foursome that had been pushing hardest for TNC recognition, are now switching their focus to pressing the administration to speedily answer all of these unresolved questions.
"Recognition should now open the door for more robust U.S. and international support for the TNC, including facilitating their access to the frozen assets of the Qaddafi regime for the benefit of the Libyan people and to support the NATO mission. We strongly urge the administration to remove any remaining obstacles to the TNC's ability to gain access to these frozen assets as soon as possible," the senators said in a statement today.
"We also urge the Administration to increase our diplomatic presence in Benghazi, designate a U.S. ambassador to the TNC, and give the TNC's representatives in Washington and New York full diplomatic rights and privileges."
Ali Aujali, Qaddafi's former ambassador to Washington who defected to become the official TNC representative, told The Cable in an interview today that he expected many of those issues to be resolved in the coming days.
The TNC hopes to retake control of the official Libyan embassy space in Washington's Watergate Complex this weekend, he said, and he expects to be soon granted full diplomatic status, although he has not been contacted directly by the State Department since the announcement was made.
"We are very happy, this will make our lives much easier," Aujali said. "Now we have the confidence to go to the United Nations and ask for full recognition."
Aujali was also confident the legal issues related to the recognition would get worked out, although he didn't have any specifics. He said the sanctions against Qaddafi must be maintained, regardless of the legal details.
"The embargo has to be against Qaddafi and Qaddafi's people -- that should stay until Qaddafi is gone. As long as he's there, there's still danger," he said.
While many questions remain, Clinton's announcement went a long way to assuring the Libyan rebels that the United States is on their side and is at least somewhat responsive to their concerns, according to Aujali.
"This is a historical day," he said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.