JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV. Thank you for joining us.
Our speaker, Ethan Chorin, is a longtime Middle East scholar and one of the first American diplomats posted to Libya after the lifting of international sanctions. He will be discussing his book, Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution. This is an important work as it provides an excellent understanding about the events leading up to the revolution and it also reveals the larger context within which the uprising eventually took shape.
After years of being a pariah on the world stage, in 2003 Muammar Qaddafi signed what many thought was an impossible deal with the United States. He abandoned his weapons of mass destruction and agreed to compensate the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. A year later, in the summer of 2004, Ethan was sent to Libya to become the commercial economic officer at the U.S. Liaison Office in Tripoli.
As part of his assignment, he was to report to the State Department and various other interested agencies on all aspects of the Libyan economy and reform processes, while facilitating U.S. business interests there. This provided the opportunity to meet with a wide range of individuals, including U.S., EU, and Libyan officials, all of whom proved to be excellent sources of information about the strategies and machinations that brought Qaddafi in from the cold and enabled the citizens of Libya to overcome the legacy of over four decades of dictatorial rule.
This information gathering also provided a solid foundation for the book. While Exit the Colonel is mainly the story of Qaddafi’s departure from the Libyan stage and the rapprochement between Qaddafi and the West, it’s much more. Ethan’s writing draws attention to how failed policies contributed to this revolution, which in turn raises many questions about our foreign policy and our strategic and moral obligations, and adds to the debate over what the U.S. role should be in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
With the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens along with three of his colleagues at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, once again America’s attention is focused on Libya and the challenges facing its new government, security being critical, as evidenced by this recent episode.
As an aside—but an important one—I want to mention that at the time of the attack our speaker was in Benghazi and was actually scheduled to meet with Ambassador Stevens the next morning to discuss a health care development project that they were working on together. In a New York Times article, which appeared on September 13, Ethan wrote about this trip, his scheduled meeting, and what the loss of Ambassador Stevens now means for Libya. It has been said that the greatest misstep would be for the United States to write off Libya as an irredeemable terrorist haven or for politicians in Washington to regret having intervened in support of Libya’s rebels. If we disengage, Ethan wrote, retreat, or focus only on driving out extremist elements, that would be a terrible mistake.
This leads me to raise a question about what we need to do now to ensure that not only Libya, but other countries in the Arab world, will become productive and prosperous members of the international community.
For a critical look behind the headlines, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Ethan Chorin. Thank you for joining us.
ETHAN CHORIN: Good evening, everyone. Thank you very much, Ms. Myers, and I would like to thank the Carnegie Council for hosting me, as well as the publisher, Public Affairs Books.
I was approached literally a couple of weeks after the beginning of the revolution about the idea of writing a book about a series of events that was literally just underway. It was a bit of an issue trying to come up with a book proposal because we had absolutely no idea about how this was going to end. The end, as in the exit of Qaddafi, was reasonably clear, I thought. The beginning, at least as far as the rapprochement between the West and Libya, was a period in which I had lived as a junior diplomat, from 2004 to 2006, when a small group of us was sent to Tripoli to basically lay the foundations for what became the embassy.
I have spent a lot of time in the Middle East. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have studied Japanese back when I was in college, because the degree of changeability and drama just continues. But there’s a certain something about the region and the people and the disparate cultures that is really quite gripping, and the more that you get into it, I think the more you become passionate about it. I have certainly been very passionate about Libya.
Some of the reflections that I heard, the commentary that was made to me, while I was posted in Libya, basically drove the desire to write this book. A number of people came up to me—it was very surprising—in different contexts, whether they were taxi drivers, people who were poised to make lots of money as middlemen between the regime and the private sector, former monarchy people who had been parliamentarians back in the 1960s under King Idris, and said, “Look, we understand that there’s this rapprochement going on, but you realize that this is your time to pin the regime and Colonel Qaddafi to the wall. If you don’t express what you want from this and have a clear end goal, things will not work out well. We’re willing to say that even if we are poised to make a lot of money out of this.”
This wasn’t the view of everyone, of course. But these kinds of hushed warnings resonated very strongly with me and I think are, in some ways, increasingly explained by some of the news that we’re hearing in retrospect about what actually went on during some period of the Qaddafi regime.
In the book there are basically four main points that I try to make. One of them has been brought into profile by the presidential debate and the whole issue of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, which is what I call the myth of Libya’s irrelevance to U.S. policy. If you go back to the foundations of the Libyan state in 1951, the United States has always looked at Libya as something of a strange creature that we could use as a piece of a strategy that had to do with the region as a whole, but the relationship was never seen as an object in and of itself.
You could start off with the relationship with the Soviets and the Eisenhower Doctrine in the United States’s desire to push back. Libya was desperately pleading for U.S. attention back then, for aid to get itself together to be able to stand on its own feet. This was before the discovery of oil. The United States kind of said, “Well, you know, you’re not as important as Egypt, for example, and we’ll think about it.” The result was that the prime minister at the time, Ben Halim, basically devised a plan to court the Soviets and see if he could grab the United States’s attention.
The next major event was Libya’s and Qaddafi’s successful bid to change drastically the way that oil pricing was conducted, by squeezing the independent oil companies—Occidental Petroleum, first and foremost—into changing the system whereby there would be a 50/50 split and basically controlling interest by U.S. oil companies in Libyan oil. The consequence of that has come through to this day in terms of increasing the economic power of the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular.
Fast-forward to the Arab Spring. In 2009, President Obama delivered his now-famous “New Beginning” speech in which he said that he was going to stand with the Arab people against tyranny and made a number of very strong statements, which he probably wasn’t expecting to be called upon so soon. As the sequential Arab revolts came into being, there were very few places where the United States had an easy or even a conceivable edge to come in and do something where the consequences were not dramatic, or at least could be positive.
Of course, Egypt was a longtime ally, an anchor in the Middle East, supportive of Israel. Tunisia by that point had already kind of crossed the threshold and Ben Ali was out. Syria—the comparisons with Libya are quite . . . it’s very different. It’s a multisectarian society with lots and lots of connections to other powers, notably Iran, Lebanon, Israel, where disrupting or changing that relationship could have all sorts of consequences which are unknown.
Libya was unique in that essentially there was a popular uprising. There was a program that had been put forth by a small group of people who had put themselves forward as, first, unofficial but then increasingly official spokesmen of the Libyan people. There was a program that doesn’t exist in Syria at the moment. This was an opportunity for President Obama and the United States to make some good on much of the content of the 2009 speech, which is very important. I think people are potentially losing sight of that.
The second takeaway is the question of intelligence and what we have known about what’s going on in Libya for the past 42 years. It’s remarkably little. This is, I think, also a symptom of, in particular, countries that go into the sanctions’ blackouts. Once that happens, you institutionally lose some knowledge, which is not regenerated as time goes on. I think when situations change and there needs to be some repository of knowledge upon which you can draw to figure out what’s really going on, it’s not there, because the place has been off the map for quite some time.
I think that lack of institutional knowledge complicated the U.S. response to what was going on, not only in Libya, but in other Arab Spring countries.
The third thing that I think is very interesting is the issue of the rapprochement between the United States and Libya being actually the straw that broke the camel’s back, in the sense that Qaddafi made a series of agreements with the United States, which he thought was going to save his regime. There were a number of consequences of those decisions, both for the United States and for Libya, which did not turn out exactly as he wanted. I’ll go into that in a little bit more detail later. I date the end of the regime, really, to the nature of the agreement that was made between the United States in particular—but the West in general—and Libya in 2003.
The fourth takeaway, I think, is the importance of follow-through, which relates to all the points that I made before. There was a success in Libya. This is my opinion, and certainly others share it. I think this is one of President Obama's major successes. The danger is that as time goes on, as the political vacuum moves forward and grassroots processes move forward, if they don’t move forward fast enough, you are going to have a major problem. You can see evidence of that as we speak.
In general, I continue to be optimistic about Libya's future. The country has a very small population, 6 million people. It has tremendous oil wealth, $78 billion barrels of proven reserves. They are already back to their pre-war production. One of the most striking things is the political transitions that have taken place in terms of going from a non-elected representation and articulation of goals to a transitional government and then an elected government, both on the national and the local levels. You don't see that elsewhere, at least not in as striking a fashion.
In the rest of the book I talk quite a bit about the personality of Qaddafi and what motivated him. Many people have argued that the personalities of the dictators themselves really don’t matter. In the case of Libya, I actually think that that's not quite true. Qaddafi was a mercurial, I believe quite intelligent person, who had certain fixations. I’ll try to be diplomatic here. There’s a lot of strangeness there which motivated his behavior in ways that I think were so bizarre that many of the people who were looking at this from the U.S. policy side—it was not a way that they were accustomed to thinking about things. That posed problems when you were trying to anticipate what he was going to do or respond to him.
For example, after the 1986 bombing in Benghazi and Tripoli, Qaddafi was rumored to have gone into a tremendous funk for a period of several months and was really incapacitated. If you fast-forward, this is something that looks like it happened after the beginning of the revolution. That mentality seemed to have provoked a very deep-rooted feeling that he needed to somehow both retaliate and then, once he retaliated, to exonerate himself.
If you look at the major events in U.S.-Libya relations for the years after the late 1980s, you have the Lockerbie bombing, which was a seminal event in what would come next, plunging Libya into a period of extended sanctions. Once he was fingered for the Lockerbie bombing, there were a number of actions that were taken that were designed in some way to mitigate or deflect responsibility for that act and to try to get himself back into the good graces of, if not his own people, then the outside world. The Bulgarian nurses case is one example.
I would like to talk a little bit in terms of the actual disintegration of the regime. I think the Lockerbie bombing was a tremendous marker there in the sense that it created a period for Libya in which essentially the place was hermetically sealed. Qaddafi was left to stew in his own juices. Oil exports and revenues declined greatly. He was unable to purchase weapons at the same rate. His range of maneuver in the outside world was greatly curtailed. I think that personally affected him greatly, and it certainly affected the people around him, who wanted to be able to travel to spend the income that they got from his patronage.
That environment created an atmosphere, as well, in which the Islamic opposition could take greater root and essentially became more and more virulent. There were a number of events that, because of our lack of understanding of what was going on in Libya, would in retrospect signal to people who were watching this that things were not going well in Libya. Essentially the people were getting increasingly frustrated with Qaddafi and had the potential to explode.
Another seminal event was the Abu Salim massacre in 1996 in which 1,250 people were killed. This was allegedly under the supervision of Qaddafi’s head of internal intelligence, Abdullah Senussi. This was very important because the victims of that massacre were primarily political prisoners and from the eastern part of the country. And in a very tightly knit tribal society, an act of that magnitude basically created cascading resentments, which came to haunt Qaddafi, basically. That was a major event in creating resentment against the regime.
By 1997, Benghazi was essentially in a state of siege. There was a very large barracks that was in the center of the town known as the Katiba, or “the first of Qaddafi.” This was, in many degrees, occupied territory. Fast-forward: This explains a bit more of this East-West distinction and was very important in proving to be the spark of the rebellion.
Perhaps the most critical inflection point in Qaddafi’s ultimate downward trajectory was the U.S. war in Iraq. Once this was underway, the stage was set for two competing and rather disingenuous narratives, one told by Qaddafi to his own people, one told by the Bush administration and the West to its people.
The story put forth on our side was that Qaddafi was essentially unrepentant about Lockerbie and about terrorist activities and his weapons of mass destruction until the point where he saw Saddam Hussein pulled out of the spider hole. The problem, of course, was that there are documented efforts of Qaddafi pursuing peace, essentially, with the United States since 1992, just after the UN sanctions started to kick in. There were at least 10 documented attempts by Qaddafi or Qaddafi's representatives to get the international community to agree to let him back in, to create the conditions for rapprochement.
That narrative is not quite accurate. As for the question of weapons of mass destruction, Qaddafi had a tendency for many years to collect large amounts of weapons that were either defective or that nobody knew how to use. I'm not a nuclear expert, but I think I have read most of the public sources on this subject, and the strong feeling among many very prominent scientists and observers is that Qaddafi was very far from a nuclear weapon.
Further, the U.S. policy community really wasn’t very concerned about Qaddafi. Qaddafi believed constantly that he was the focus of U.S. attention, or should be, and that he must do something to escape what would undoubtedly be a very unpleasant consequence for himself.
To the Libyan people, of course, the concept of linkage came in, in which Qaddafi would basically use the rapprochement to say, “Look, I’ve managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. We’ve lived under sanctions for eight-plus years, depending on which entity you’re talking about, and I’ve managed to get myself—and us—out of it. And Libya will be a prosperous country moving forward.”
There were some Qaddafi aides who, in moments of indiscretion, confessed to us that they were all stunned that this agreement took place, and they never believed that this rapprochement could actually happen.
One of my major arguments in the book was that the administration in the United States was so eager at this point to try to find a positive result from the Iraq War and to gain information that would lead to a fortified counterterrorism policy. And there’s this bonus of the weapons of mass destruction, counter-proliferation issue—all this stuff was fantastic, and we could leave the details until later, which was, in my view, a huge mistake.
If you look at the Lockerbie agreement itself, which dictated the terms under which the payments to the victims of Pan Am 103 were disbursed, the agreement itself was negotiated between lawyers on the side of the families and the Libyan government. The United States was not a party to that agreement. Yet that agreement made it very clear that monies would not be transferred unless certainly diplomatic objectives in the relationship, milestones, had been reached.
So essentially Qaddafi, in typical fashion, turned his worst enemies, his greatest “anti-” lobby, into one of his greatest tools for getting out of the mess that he was in. And this process continued into many other incidents, which I talk about at great length in the book.
So you have these divergent narratives.
The other issue is that human rights seemed to take a great backseat to the exigencies of those other goals that I just mentioned. In retrospect, as information came out about the rendition programs that were run by the CIA, for example, to bring individuals to Libya, deliver them for torture—if you're looking at a policy of trying to pressure Qaddafi towards economic reform and improved human rights, all he has to do is say, "Look, you're kidding us. Look what you're doing. It undermines the premise that actual reform and human rights are one of your major goals."
A very interesting portion of the story is the question of the makeover. That’s the title of one of the chapters. Once both parties, Libya and the United States, agreed that this was the path going forward, a joint story had to be created. Of course, Qaddafi was not exactly the best character actor for reform, so somebody else needed to be found to play that role. And who better than Saif al-Islam, his [second son and] so-called heir-apparent.
Saif al-Islam was one of seven siblings, and many of them came into their adulthood during this very time of the rapprochement. Something needed to be done with them. They needed to have some sort of a role. Saif al-Islam was the most charismatic, by many accounts, the most intellectually curious of all of them, and had been spared some of the influences that were brought to bear on some of his brothers, who took other courses.
I don’t take a stand in the book about what Saif al-Islam’s intentions were. He developed a rather long résumé of reform-building efforts over the course of the first years of the rapprochement, from hostage negotiation to helping set up new media companies that were pushing the envelope of what could be said under this regime. He became sort of the advocate for the disenfranchised or the oppressed or the victims of some of Qaddafi's more atrocious acts.
There was a question of how far he really wanted to go. What was the model that he was following? Many people have commented on this. What’s most interesting for me in the book is the fact that through his efforts, and regardless of what value judgment or what goal he was looking towards, he created a group of people that became almost like an intermediate class of regime/non-regime people who were recognized by the West as reformers and could play an active role in solidifying, at the very least, the appearance of reform and probably, to some extent, reform up to a point—basically, economic reform. Qaddafi Senior made it very clear that he was never willing to compromise on the issue of political reform.
There is a very interesting set of conversations between the various sources that I quote in the book that describe the arguments and disputes and negotiations, to some degree, between the people that Saif al-Islam chose to advance some of his reformist policies and what Qaddafi Senior was willing to permit. Gradually, as time went on, there was more of a feeling by some of Qaddafi’s longer-term aides that this was not good and he was going too far.
But when the revolution actually occurred—and I think this is a critical fact—this group of individuals was able to play kind of a mediating role and actually make a case to the United States, through individuals like Ambassador Stevens and Secretary Clinton, that there was actually someone to talk to. Mahmoud Jibril, who was the head of the National Economic Development Board, which is part of sort of safe reform efforts, became the foreign minister/prime minister under the National Transitional Council [NTC] and is now the head of the largest essentially non-Islamic political party in Libya right now. Fathi Terbil was the human rights lawyer who interacted very frequently with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the president of the NTC and the person who launched that period in recent history.
This was a group of people that knew each other. They communicated with each other. They all had their own causes and networks. If you’re talking about social networks as a factor in the Arab Spring states, in terms of Libya, it really wasn't Facebook or Twitter or things like this; it was Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera brought the spotlight to what was going on in Libya when no one else knew exactly what was happening.
But these networks and these individuals managed to essentially do what Saif may not have been able to do, if only because he was the son of Muammar Qaddafi.
The rest of the book talks about the actual unfolding of the revolution, which is really a fantastic story. The whole question of what was happening in Benghazi and Tripoli in the early days after the arrest of Fathi Terbil on February 15 is really quite a stunning story, and I don’t think it has been told in English in this degree of detail. I tried very hard. I interviewed lots of people in Benghazi, officials here and in Europe, but mainly relied on local sources.
The whole issue of how the United States became motivated to get involved is interesting. Again I go back to the issue of intelligence and what people didn’t know about Libya and what assumptions people were making. It seemed like Washington, between the National Security Council and the White House and the State Department—everybody had a different idea of what should be done. There were advocates on both sides. There was a ready group of individuals, such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who were looking for an opportunity to implement a responsibility to protect [R2P] scenario that would succeed. That’s a whole section again, as to how we came to intervene and why that was actually a good idea.
The next question, of course, is the one that everybody is talking about now, and which I'll leave more for questions: Where is Libya headed next? With regard to what happened in Benghazi one needs to take, regardless of all of the chaos that's happening, a step back, go up several thousand feet, and look at this process over a much longer period of time. We're still a year into this revolution.
Many Libyans expected that this was going to be a shorter and more pleasant experience than it has been, and they have been confronted with a very rude reality. But at the same time, in my trips back to Libya over the last year, I have seen some really remarkable stories of expatriates who have come back and dropped everything, lucrative jobs in Europe and in the States, to help build infrastructure. The way in which the local elections were held in Benghazi in May was exemplary.
There's a counter story to almost everything. There are a number of things to be very optimistic about. There were tens of thousands of people who, after the assassination of Ambassador Stevens, took to the streets in Benghazi in protest against extremism. They were a little slow on the uptake when the Sufi shrines were being decimated in Tripoli, but there was this palpable sense that "our revolution is being hijacked, and we're going to do something about it."
There is a potential parallel right now between what's happened in Benghazi, the attack, and what happened back in July of 2011, when the rebel commander Abdel Fattah Younis was assassinated in Benghazi. Tripoli was still not liberated. People were thinking, "Oh, my god, this is the end of the revolution. Qaddafi's going to come back and wipe everybody out." In fact, what happened was that Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the NTC, used that as a means of essentially quieting his detractors and consolidating power and helping move forward the onslaught on Tripoli.
To the extent that now we have what appears to be a progressive, more forceful—and I’m saying that, qualifying; I don't have as much detail as I would have liked—new prime minister, Ali Zeidan, there is an opportunity here to maybe consolidate, and maybe something better will come out of this in the near future.
QUESTION: I'm Tyler Beebe.
We hear a lot about tribal militias wreaking unpredictable havoc here and there, and making things very unpredictable and messy. Can you comment on that?
ETHAN CHORIN: Well, the militias are certainly making things complicated and messy, that’s for sure. Essentially the revolution was won in pockets, and each region basically had its own militia. Of course, a region is usually tied to, to some degree—not completely—to a tribal identity, which then can be used as a trigger for conflict with a neighboring tribal identity. Misrata, for example, the coastal town in the center of the coast, which was very much in the news, suffered relentless shelling by loyalist forces for many weeks. That created a tremendous degree of resentment. Essentially there’s now a renewed conflict between the Misrata militias and the town of Bani Walid, which was a loyalist stronghold.
Those kinds of tensions can easily —and the fear is that they will—spread into other areas.
Security is issue number one in Libya right now. The problem is that the militias are also, despite their many colors—from good to bad, however you are going to judge them—the guarantors of security in a locality, until there’s a strong central government. At what point does that transition occur?
There are many thousands of people, former rebels, who have been integrated into the national army. There have been weapons-collection programs, things like this. But in Libya there’s so much weaponry there that even the most successful collection program will leave many, many more. It’s a huge problem.
QUESTION: David Musher.
My question has to do with whether the means justify the ends. This was a civil war which was contained completely within Libya. Granted, America and certainly Europe had tremendous financial interests. What are the future political consequences of our having acted in internal affairs in this country, and what type of precedent has this set?
ETHAN CHORIN: Excellent question. I would actually answer that first by saying that the United States and the West was not a neutral party in Libya. In fact, from the moment that sanctions were lifted, first the UN sanctions and then the EU arms embargo in 2004, a flood of weaponry came into Libya—over $1 billion, which, in absolute terms, may not be that great, but relative to what was in there before and what it was used for, created, I would say, an unfair playing field.
This was not a neutral issue, as far as we were concerned. That process, as I argue in the book, was very much tied to this whole issue of not putting accountability in place for what we would get and what Qaddafi could not do as a result of the agreements that were signed with him.
That weaponry—much of it was small arms, surveillance equipment, all of the sorts of things that you would need to put down a popular revolt—was put in the hands of the regime essentially due to complicity and lack of attention by parties in the West.
That’s one thing.
As far as what precedent is set, that's a deep question. The rebels themselves had managed to present a case and asked for protection. The whole issue of the responsibility for—I’m assuming you are going beyond the responsibility to protect civilians and play a—
QUESTIONER: The basis in international law for our intervening and what that might have for the future—
ETHAN CHORIN: I think in this case, in terms of the responsibility-to-protect doctrine—one of the reasons that the United States wanted to intervene on some level in this conflict was to beef up the case for the R2P doctrine. International law is a fuzzy sort of subject, to some degree, and it’s built, to a large degree, on precedent. I have to say, the United States intervened in Libya back in the early 1800s basically to fund a rebellion in Benghazi that would then move forward and take out the unfriendly—
QUESTIONER: They were attacking our ships.
ETHAN CHORIN: They were attacking our ships, yes.
Well, but what would have happened if—here’s the preventive doctrine and President Obama made this comment in the debate last night—if we had left Qaddafi in power, agitated, with his mercurial moods and tendency to blow up lots of airplanes? I think that would have been an absolute disaster.
I’m not an international lawyer. I’m not in a position to debate the finer points about it. But I think, effectively, this was a well-played intervention. If anything else, on the moral side, I think we had a responsibility to, in some way, even the playing field, because we were responsible, to a large degree, for empowering Qaddafi for several years and giving him the means with which to suppress his own people.
I know I’m going to get flak.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
In the perspective of the success of the NATO-enforced, U.S.-backed no-fly zone in Libya, I would like to ask you the same question that Bob Schieffer asked the two candidates last night. It sort of sneaked by most people. What about a no-fly zone in Syria? There are military differences. They have Russian-imported antiaircraft, sophisticated things. But the answer that both Romney and Obama gave was: No military involvement. A no-fly zone is a step towards military involvement, but not a full military involvement.
What would be your answer to that question?
ETHAN CHORIN: Presumably, some of the calculation that went into the intervention in Libya was that if we intervene in Libya, we won’t have to intervene in Syria because we have already done this. That’s a little bit too flip, but that’s one—personally, if I were in that position, I would be in favor of a no-fly zone. So would the Turks. The Turks are saying, “Look, you’re repeating history over and over again here.”
What I think is problematic is sending certain caliber weapons to the opposition when we don’t know exactly who they are, because that’s also repeating a bad precedent. You don’t want those weapons to fall into the wrong hands. What has happened to the 20,000 surface-to-air missiles that were supposedly in Qaddafi’s hands? Actually, I’ve got a whole other answer to that.
But, yes, I would think that if you're going to follow that rationale, ultimately that would make sense.
QUESTION: Howard Lentner.
I would like to ask you if you would give some detail on what I think was your second major point you said in your book. That is to say, you said that the agreement that Qaddafi made with the United States really contributed to eroding his power and creating this situation in Libya. Maybe by an example, could you tell us what you mean by that? How exactly did that work?
Then I wonder if you would just evaluate that in terms of whether you think that that technique of making an agreement with a tyrant might be useful in other situations, that that same kind of mechanism would be able to work to erode his power.
ETHAN CHORIN: There was a tremendous amount of disagreement, discord, in Washington about the terms of these essentially multiple agreements with Qaddafi. One of the arguments that I heard from several senior officials was that any light into that darkness would eventually give people new ideas; they will understand better what’s on the outside; they don’t have these things. That argument is fairly prominent.
I think in the case of Libya another aphorism is the notion that people don’t rebel when they are under the most severe pressure, when they are scrambling to try to fill their basic needs, that they rebel when they are a bit more aware and have some level of resources to act.
I think what those agreements did was essentially give the Libyan people some breathing space and allowed for networks. As I was talking about before, it gave the ability for people who otherwise would not communicate with each other—all these victims, the victims of the Benghazi nurses scandal, which was an infection of around 461 infants with HIV, which now various former regime members are claiming was a deliberate act on the part of the regime—these sort of luminaries of the immediate post-revolution were all part of these campaigns.
Saif al-Islam, for example, mainly was the person who was publicly coming out and saying, “Well, we’ll give you a little more room in order to air your grievances, and when you air your grievances, you’ll get that out of your system, we’ll pay you compensation, and we’ll all be back into the fold.”
But what it actually did, when the events in Tunisia broke out, and Egypt, I think that empowered people. The net result was that there were these lines of communication which could readily link these various people together into some kind of a cohesive temporary command center.
I think that, yes, you could apply that to North Korea, presumably. But how do you do that? I don’t know. In Libya there was an opportunity and Qaddafi had a really strong motive.
QUESTION: I'm David Hunt.
You have been in Benghazi. Your group is building a trauma center there. I wonder if you would comment on the assassination of Ambassador Stevens. Do you think, for example, that the State Department was wise in letting him even go down there, given it was 9/11?
ETHAN CHORIN: I knew this question was coming.
QUESTIONER: I mean, 9/11—it seems to me that everybody in Washington or maybe even in Libya, too, forgot that there was a big anniversary coming up. As you know, because you were in the embassy there, when the chief of mission goes off, he sends a cable to Washington that says, “I’m going down. I’ll be back in a couple of days,” and they concur or not. It just seems to me that he walked into a lion's den without anybody really being aware of what the situation was.
ETHAN CHORIN: Just a minor note. Our efforts in Benghazi were actually to catalyze a partnership between a couple of teaching hospitals in the United States and their local counterpart in Benghazi. So I can’t claim to be building a trauma center. We facilitated a number of training programs that we hope will go forward.
But as far as what was going on there, I’ve written a piece also in which I argue that there are some systemic issues. Taking it up a step, it’s not a Romney-Obama issue. This is sort of a systemic issue within several U.S. government agencies which send people out into the field. You tend to have this super-response to certain situations where you’ve got the fortress and people can barely get in and out, and one asks what exactly they are doing there, versus transitional installations. When I first got to Libya, it was USLO, the United States Liaison Office. It wasn’t an embassy. It was a transition. We were living in a hotel.
The State Department doesn’t tend to cope with those situations as well as maybe they might. I think that was part of why Secretary Clinton came forward and said that basically, on some level, she is taking responsibility for that. Presumably there will be investigations and people will look into how to make the bureaucracy work better to protect U.S. diplomats.
One has to say against that that if you look at the record of how many Foreign Service officers have been killed in the line of duty, or ambassadors, it’s very few. They must be doing a very good job in many instances. But there seem to be certain types of situations that are more prone for there to be breakdowns.
When I was based in Tripoli, we had virtually no protection whatsoever. We wrote very similar cables and said, “Yes, we understand that Qaddafi’s security apparatus is prevalent, but does that mean that we’re not exposed?” I think a lot of people were very relieved when our tours were over, for that reason.
It’s not just me saying these things. There are anecdotes from all over the place—“all over the place” is an exaggeration. The fact is that the State Department is being asked to put more and more people in more and more dangerous situations. There is a limited budget. Congress has a lot to do with that. Many of the people who are screaming at the State Department and saying that they are at fault here are some of the same people who are refusing to authorize funds for that. Some of the arguments that were given in defense are not quite—it’s a complicated issue. Those kinds of budgets and allocations are a negotiation between the president and the Congress, with input from the State Department.
But to answer your question even more directly, I don’t know why. We were certainly concerned before we went in there that it was the anniversary of September 11 and it was not a great time to be running around. We are not prominent targets, but we are Westerners and we stick out in a place like Benghazi. There was a pattern of attacks in Benghazi over the course of the previous six months, and practically all of them were high-profile either local officials or international diplomats. So one would have to say that that was a prominent target.
I haven’t heard any convincing answers as to why that was the case. Cultural center? He wasn’t in Benghazi to meet with us. I had heard that he was in town when I arrived. That made it into the media in various places. I think there’s so much misinformation running around. Given the campaign and the rest of it, that may be somewhat natural, I don’t know. I assume that answers will come out.
QUESTION: Susan Ball.
I was just curious. When you said the oil production was up, back to normal, or where it was before, who is getting the profits from all that oil at this point?
ETHAN CHORIN: Libya as an operating environment has been very difficult. An actually very interesting fact is that many months before the revolution, a couple of major U.S. oil companies had declined to renew their licenses. The Libyans had made it very difficult for U.S. companies to recoup some of their astronomical early investments and signing bonuses for exploration licenses.
It's beside the point, but basically at the moment the production is underway. The administrative processes for converting that money both into the civil sector, through budgets, and into the hands of people who need it in Libya is not working properly. As far as the oil companies themselves, I’m sure they are taking care of themselves.
Libya has the largest reserves in Africa. Much of the land is still relatively unexplored, because people haven’t been in there for very long. I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of long-term interest in Libya on the part of U.S. oil companies and related outfits.
JOANNE MYERS: Ethan, I thank you very much for illuminating some of the problems in Libya. I invite the rest of you to join us in a continuing conversation. Thank you.