The Cable

U.S. recognition of the Libyan rebel government leaves many questions unanswered

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.

The Cable

House leaders to Palestine: seek U.N. recognition, forget foreign aid

The top Republican and Democrat foreign aid leaders in the House of Representatives are warning the Palestinian Authority (PA) that U.S. aid will be withheld if the Palestinians seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.

"We write to reiterate our serious concerns about your intentions to pursue recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations," reads a July 11 letter sent to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas by the leaders of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), obtained by The Cable.

"It has been the longstanding belief of the United States government that the path to a true and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis will come only as a result of direct negotiations. We write to reaffirm that belief and warn of the severe consequences of abandoning it."

The Obama administration has been clear that it doesn't support the Palestinian plan to seek a vote on statehood at the United Nations in September, but it so far hasn't spelled out any consequences for the Palestinians if they should choose to do so. Congress, on the other hand, is doing a lot to make those consequences known. On July 7, the House passed a resolution opposing the statehood plan by a 407-6 vote. The Senate passed the same resolution unanimously.

In May, 29 senators promised to cut off all U.S. assistance to the PA if it formed a unity government with Hamas. The United States gave the PA about $550 million in aid in fiscal 2011, a mixture of project funding and direct cash to the government.

The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, told The Cable in May that the plan to seek recognition at the United Nations was not final and could be scuttled if negotiations resume. He also said that the unity government would not change its policies regarding the peace process at least until Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, which are tentatively scheduled for May 2012.

The House plans to mark up its fiscal 2012 appropriations bill on July 27, and several foreign aid accounts are under scrutiny. And following the apparently fruitless meeting this week of the Quartet members here in Washington, the path back to direct negotiations remains unclear -- a fact that will only further endanger U.S. assistance to the PA.

Already, Congress has been taking a harder look at funding for the Palestinian territories. Multiple Hill sources said that a recent routine request for program funding for USAID staffers vetting Palestinian aid projects was held up by the House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) for weeks before finally getting approval.

"American assistance has always been predicated upon Palestinian leaders' commitment to resolve all outstanding issues through direct negotiations," the congresswomen wrote. "Current and future aid will be jeopardized if you abandon direct negotiations and continue your current efforts."