Obama's New Libya
What hath President Obama wrought in Libya?
In a chilling possible foretaste of what awaits Libya, the flag used by Al Qaeda has been flown by the leaders of the revolution there backed by Obama. On November 2, 2011, an article was published in the Daily Mail with the title "Flying Proudly Over the Birthplace of Libya's Revolution, the Flag of Al Qaeda". The pictures accompanying the article show on the roof of a building two flags, one a black flag emblazoned with the moon and Arabic script reading "There is no God but Allah". This black flag, the acknowledged banner of members of Al Qaeda, is pictured flying next to the Libyan national flag on the top of the courthouse in Benghazi.
The Libyan National Transitional Council denies that they are responsible for the presence of the Al Qaeda flag, and the length of time it appears is in question, but the photographs clearly show that above the building where the forces in rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi centered their first media and governing activities flies the flag of Al Qaeda. While not widely reported in the press, this event highlights the unpredictable nature of the new government of Libya and the risk taken by President Obama when he actively supported the rebel forces in their attacks on the government of Gaddafi.
What would be most telling in diplomatic terms, though, would be to find out how this fact was reported in the regular cables sent back to Washington, D.C. by the new United States envoy to the NTC.
This intermediary's name is Christopher Stevens, a career State Department diplomat, and a man whose changing titles act as a metaphor for the shifting alliances and goals of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Libya since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. While I have never met Chris in person, I corresponded with him by email in the past but at that time he had a different job and title.
My initial contact with Chris Stevens occurred three years ago when I contacted the United States embassy in Tripoli asking for advice on securing a visa to enter Libya a few days before I left on a research trip to Egypt. I received a courteous response by email from Mr. Stevens, who at the time was listed as the "Chargé d'Affaires, ad interim" on the embassy website. In his email to me he listed "US Embassy, Tripoli" as his address and title. I have had close association with U.S. Foreign Service Officers in the past and the ambiguity of Mr. Steven's title caught my eye at the time. In corresponding with diplomats before this I noted that they were always very careful to be specific about their roles.
While the exclusion of this particular Foreign Service officer's specific title may seem trivial, instead it is quite telling. Mr. Steven's evolving titles since 2008 illustrate the changing, unpredictable -- and since March of this year arguably subversive -- current diplomatic mission of the United States in Libya.
The video of the corpse of Muammar Gaddafi shown on television in late October is the end result of the successful effort to overthrow the regime by the New Transitional Council and it is noteworthy that the rebellion was actively encouraged by President Obama virtually from the beginning.
Only time will tell if Obama made the correct decision in supporting the rebel government. But the discovery last month of up to 267 loyalist graves in Sirte does not bode well for the future of Libya.
One fact is certain, however, and it is that President Obama had a direct hand in unseating a foreign leader who was behaving himself in diplomatic terms and was acting in harmony with the business and political interests of the United States.
To be sure Muammar Gaddafi was not a friend of the United States in the past. The Lockerbie bombing in 1988 and the Libyan government's letter to the UN Security Council accepting "responsibility for the actions of its officials" in the incident pointed directly to Gaddafi as ordering the bombing. No excuses should be made for a leader who directs terrorist attacks against the United States and kills my country's citizens.
What must be kept in mind though, is that with time wounds do heal. With the payment of over one billion dollars to the victims of terrorism, Gaddafi began the process of moving forward in diplomatic relations with the United States and other western nations.
And the process was working. With the gradual removal of sanctions under the eight year Bush administration, U.S. oil firms began operating in Libya again in 2005. In terms of nuclear security concerns Gaddafi was cooperating with IAEC monitoring. He also pledged to not produce chemical weapons.
Further proof of U.S. acceptance of Gaddafi's rule was noted in 2006 when Libya was removed from the State Sponsored Terrorism list. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Gaddafi in September, 2008 the world watched as the slow and formal process of recognizing a past rogue state continued. With the careful and deliberate efforts of the administrations of both President Clinton and President George W. Bush, Libya under Gaddafi was moving towards legitimacy.
As evidence of this, the email I received from Chris Stevens three years ago came from a fully-functioning United States embassy in Tripoli which had been in service since May, 2006. Within six months of my correspondence with CDA Stevens, the Congress of the United States confirmed Bush nominee Gene Cretz as U.S. Ambassador to Libya. Over the next three years the new ambassador and CDA Chris Stevens negotiated and socialized with Colonel Gaddafi.
Steven's relationship with Gaddafi and his feelings towards the Libyan leader are hinted at in diplomatic cables released during the WikiLeaks scandal. In one dispatch, Stevens calls Gaddafi "notoriously mercurial" but also a man who can be an "engaging and charming interlocutor" who sometimes refuses to make eye contact with him. Yet all evidence suggests Gaddafi and Stevens had a good working relationship until the outbreak of hostilities this past spring.
During the current Libyan conflict it is difficult to state with complete certainty when U.S. forces were first involved. It is generally agreed that the initial foreign engagement was on March 19 when the United States began firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from an American naval vessel. But as always, details remain unclear in the fog of war.
And as the war progressed, Stevens always appears convenient to the areas of interest, but never quite in focus. On March 14, Mr. Steven's title appeared in an article from ABC as "U.S. Names Chris Stevens Liaison to the Opposition."
By March 30, an article in Business Week states that within a week Stevens would have arrived in Benghazi to meet with the "rebel leadership." In the article, it is noted that the Arabic speaking Stevens had in years past "researched eastern Libya's 'historical role as a locus of opposition' detailing the unemployment and government mistreatment of the region that were driving young men to radicalism." The article continues by stating that according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the center of Strategic and International Studies, "Stevens is already familiar with some opposition figures from his posting in Tripoli."
The Washington Post reported that Stevens arrived in Benghazi on April 5. On the same day, a State Department spokesman stated that Stevens would "explore ways to open funding spigots for an opposition movement."
To this date, one question remains unanswered: Did Stevens meet with and encourage leading rebel figures before the uprising began? There is no evidence that Stevens incited rebel leaders in the revolt. However, as the above shows, he had at least some acquaintance with members of the new Libyan government, but the details and the depth of his relationships with future NTC council members is unclear. Stevens remains a shadowy figure, and the exact nature of his past roles in the department appears even more enigmatic considering the State Department refuses to release his official biography.
On March 19, the same day of the first use of missiles by the United States, in an open letter addressed to President Obama, Gaddafi appeared to be genuinely confused when he asked "I am facing Al Qaeda here -- what would you do?"
What was done was U.S. President Barack Obama, with assistance from allied countries, unseated a sitting head of state that had a productive and developing relationship with the government of the United States and multiple American businesses. Under the Obama administration, the diplomatic focus of two previous presidents has been completely altered and the future of Libya is now at serious risk as is demonstrated by the flag of Al Qaeda flying over the courthouse in Benghazi. And curiously there is a U.S. diplomat in Benghazi with another new title.
Ernest Sipes is a Lecturer in English at the University of Nizwa in Oman.