U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz on Current Events in Libya
25 March 2011
MR. TONER: Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. Welcome, Kirit. And it’s our very great good fortune to have with us today Ambassador Gene Cretz, our ambassador to Libya. And we thought it would be a good idea to get Gene down here just to walk you through some of the current events that are taking place in Libya. So without further ado, I’ll give you the mike, Gene. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Good afternoon. As you know, I’m the U.S. ambassador to Libya. I resided in Libya until late December 2010. You all know the circumstances under which I left. I’m not here to discuss these circumstances. I’m here to discuss the situation in Libya today and what the United States and its coalition partners are doing to stop the brutality and bloodshed of the Qadhafi regime, bent on denying its people universal rights that are the birthright of people everywhere.
My embassy team was evacuated from Libya on February 23rd and has been reconstituted in Washington. They’re playing an active role in providing information, analysis, and assistance based on their experience. At best, we’re trying to find clarity about a place that, in the best of times, can only be described as opaque. Now, it is exponentially more difficult, as you all know, including your own personal experiences, to get the kind of precise information that we would like.
Let’s discuss how we got here. On February 17th, a brave group of Libyan citizens decided that they no longer wanted to live under a repressive regime which denied them their most basic universal rights for over 41 years. In response to the Libyan people peacefully protesting for their universal rights, the Qadhafi regime unleashed a bloody wave of violence and oppression, slaughtering its own citizens.
The consequences of those barbaric actions was the exodus of tens of thousands of Libyans and foreigners, and we in the international community rushed at first instance to provide assistance at the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Since that time, we have provided humanitarian assistance, we’ve helped those workers get back to their countries, and we continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Libya.
The Libyan people appealed to the world to help stop these barbaric attacks, and the international community spoke with one voice to condemn them and to respond. The Arab League and the GCC called for urgent action, and the UN Security Council mandated all necessary measures to protect civilians, including a no-fly zone. We also implemented – we, the United States – our own unilateral response, including sanctions to the Qadhafi regime’s atrocities.
It became clear that Qadhafi and his henchmen had no intention of ceasing the violence and bloodshed, and as the Secretary said last night, we faced the prospect of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi. By his words, by his actions, and certainly by his past deeds, we had to take Qadhafi at his word when he threatened to go house to house and to wreak revenge against the people of Benghazi.
The international coalition was compelled to act. The coalition’s effort over the past week garnered the support and the active participation of nations who recognize the significance of coming together in the international community to address the situation in Libya.
The Libyan people must be allowed to have a voice. Ultimately, it is the Libyan people themselves who will forge the path forward for Libya. Our immediate goal is to ensure we provide the humanitarian assistance and protection they need in order to achieve their aspirations. Thank you.
QUESTION: Bring us up to date on your contacts, or other U.S. officials contacts, with the opposition since that first meeting in Paris between the Secretary and Mr. Jibril. And tell us if you are at all closer to making a decision on whether to follow the lead that France so helpfully started out, just a couple of weeks ago now, in recognizing them as the legitimate government.
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Since the beginning of the crisis, when we saw that the Council had constituted itself as some kind of temporary governing body, I, and certainly members of my staff, recognize that some of those people were people that we had dealt with during our tenures in Libya. And so right from the start, I had been reaching out to the leaders of the Council. And since that time, since the Embassy was reconstituted here, as I said, we had extensive dealings and contacts through our various programs, especially educational programs, with the people of the east. I had a very active public affairs section in Libya and they were always communicating with the doctor and jurists and people who, in fact, now are part of the Council. So we had a good in to those people.
Since the Secretary’s – we have been gradually stepping up our contacts with them on a daily basis, and certainly you’re all aware that the Secretary in Paris last week met with Mahmoud Jabril, a very prominent former official in Libya. He was the head of the National Economic Development Board, a think tank, as it were, which was in the forefront of trying to institute – recommend economic reform in Libya. And he has since been named as the – one of the two co-coordinators of the Council to the international community. So we have been, as I said, in contact with them constantly.
I would say that just in terms of my own contacts with them as well, if you look at what they have done from the start, I think they have been – they’ve moved in a very positive direction. From the beginning of the crisis, they organized local groups in the various cities that were freed from Qadhafi’s regime. They – in fact, it was a grassroots movement. They organized people at the start to, for example, take care of the garbage, take care of electricity, take care of water in those various cities. And then from a grassroots movement, they then elected their representatives to the main Council, a body of 31 which now calls itself the Transitional National Council.
They appealed for humanitarian aid. They appointed representatives right from the start because they knew that they had to deal with the international community and they appointed Mr. Jabril as well as Ali Isawi, the former ambassador to India. In addition to that, they have been very careful about trying to get the right messaging across to the international community. I hope that some of you have seen at least some of the documents that they have produced over the past several days: number one of them basically welcoming the coalition efforts on their behalf to protect them from the ravages of the Qadhafi onslaught; second, they were talking about the disparaging of the claims by the Qadhafi regime in the beginning that the coalition efforts and bombings were resulting in civilian casualties; and third, they called upon other members of the international community to help them.
Since that time, they’ve also published several documents, one of which I think was about three days ago, talking about their vision of what a future Libya would look like. And it had all the right elements in it in terms of human rights, in terms of women’s rights, in terms of equal participation. It was really a very, very good document.
So I think that from what we know and what we’ve seen over the past month, I think they’re off to a good start. That’s not to say that we know everything about them. We don’t. And we have to be very careful about who might be included in the future and how they go about forming a government if, in fact, they have that opportunity. So we’re not Pollyannaish about saying that we know everything about who we’re dealing with, but I can say that based on the experience that we’ve had so far, they are off to a good start in word and deed, and do not seem to be, at least in the statements and the actions that they’ve taken, in any way incompatible with the kind of ideals that we would be advocating in that situation.
QUESTION: Can you address – if you could Matt’s question about recognition, whether you’re any closer to making a decision on that.
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Yeah. We’re still dealing with the recognition question. I think it’s – there’s elements of legality involved, there’s elements of international law. But that has not stopped us from taking some very important steps. As you know, our Embassy in Tripoli, when our staff left, we suspended operations. We did not break relations with the Qadhafi regime. But just recently, we asked the Libyan Embassy here to undertake the same step of suspending operations. We’ve named a special envoy who we hope will be able to get to Benghazi sometime when the security situation allows itself over the next several days. And I said we’ve – the Secretary stepped up the level of representation in terms of our discussions with the opposition.
So I think we’re – without getting into the issue of whether recognition is a critical factor now or not, I think we’ve taken some steps that indicate our support for the opposition.
QUESTION: And one other thing: Beyond humanitarian assistance, what if any tangible assistance is the U.S. Government giving the opposition? Are you, for example, reaching out to try to help them think about how they might form ministries or how they might seek to govern some part of Libya, or perhaps ultimately, all of Libya? Are you doing any of that kind of work?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Yeah. We have basically been – the array of options with respect to how we can help the Council is being discussed in Washington. Nothing is off the table right now. We have made – I have made and several others from my team have made kind of informal proposals to the Council that, as it moves forward, should it require help in terms of shaping the constitution, in terms of any kind of assistance in the transformation of this kind of situation to a democracy or whatever we’ll say might emerge out of this, we are willing to offer any kind of assistance they like. But we’re going to make the offer and then we’ll wait and see exactly what they would like us to do, and then we’ll determine that then.
QUESTION: Have they asked for any --
QUESTION: Ambassador, can I ask you to take that a bit further? The rebel – the opposition says that they are looking for that kind of political – obviously, the recognition, but political support, that after the no-fly zone is set up, you could have a protracted situation where these people are in the east and trying to develop themselves. So they’re asking for this type of political support for you.
Do you have a plan for that? Is that something that Chris Stevens is going to be working on? And then also, because – just to finish that point, I mean, you’ve said that the – although the military option is not to get rid of Qadhafi, the President and the Secretary have said that your political goal would be that he steps down from power. So how do you achieve that goal?
And then there’s talk, obviously, about an indictment possibly for Colonel Qadhafi in the International Criminal Court. Knowing what you do about the regime, do you see any situation where Colonel Qadhafi would step down from power and turn himself over to The Hague? And have you had any contacts, any further contacts, with his inner circle? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: With respect to what are the potential needs of the Council as they move forward in this transition period, look, we’ve done a lot of discussions and we’ve done a lot of – begun to do some planning here under various scenarios that might emerge from the current situation. And certainly, in several of those scenarios, the idea that we might be able to help with some kind of political training, political offers, legal advice, is part of that. And we certainly would make ourselves available with all the – with the full array of the different programs and the different departments that we have available throughout the U.S. Government to them should they request that.
The question of the ICC, I know that there – I think the ICC has begun an investigation. I’ll leave it to them to determine what the case is against Qadhafi. I’m not going to speculate on what Colonel Qadhafi’s intentions are with respect to staying in power or stepping down as a result of any of these actions. I mean, if two years of living in Libya taught us anything, it’s not to speculate on the potential actions of any member of the regime, much less Colonel Qadhafi.
With respect to my own contacts, I have had some limited contact with some of the regime members. Some have contacted me, I have contacted some of them, basically with the sole purpose – and this was during the last week – of ensuring that they had seen the President’s comments last Friday, and to make sure that they understood what was at stake not only for the international community, but for themselves, and that they should look to the comments that the President made as a – kind of a “Look not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” kind of warning, and just to make sure that they understood what the full import of the President’s message was.
MR. TONER: Kirit.
QUESTION: The other day, the Secretary spoke about members of the inner circle who are reaching out, trying to find a way out of the country. And I was curious what you could tell us about any efforts to encourage members of his family, of his cabinet to break ranks with him and how you’re helping that process go on.
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: I mean, there have been – I think that someone mentioned here that there had been several reach out – contacts between members of the regime, like Moussa Koussa and Abdullah Sanussi, to Assistant Secretary Feltman last week. It’s clear that the regime is reaching out to several possible mediators, interlocutors to try to get a message across. I’m not exactly sure what the message is, but it clearly indicates, I think, at least some kind of desperation, I think, at this point. But I can’t get into the – we haven’t really been involved in those kind of discussions up until now.
QUESTION: Yesterday, the Libyan – the former Libyan ambassador to the United States said that the opposition fighters need training, they need weapons, they need ammunition, and he basically made a case that this no-fly zone is going to come to nothing if they can’t give these rebels enough material to take Qadhafi out somehow. And, I mean, obviously the opposition members are students and professors; they’re not trained fighters. And he made that case very forcefully, that seven members of the Council are university professors; only three are generals. I mean they needs some – he’s making a powerful point about the need for military support in addition to the no-fly zone. Where do we stand on that?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Well, I’m not going to get into internal discussions about whether we will provide arms or whether we won’t provide arms. I can just say that we’re having the full gamut of potential assistance that we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side, is a subject of discussion within the U.S. Government, but there has been no final decisions made on any aspect of that.
QUESTION: Do you agree with his assessment, though, that if the – essentially the no-fly zone could just create a stalemate and –
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: The – as I said before, we are – there are several scenarios that are playing out. This is a very fluid situation. And it’s very difficult to know which scenario is going to play out. Is it possible that it could result in a stalemate? That is one of the possibilities. There are several others as well. But I don’t think that with this particular point anybody has any good insight, especially given how fluid the situation is, with respect to how this is actually going to turn out.
MR. TONER: Just a couple more questions, Said and then Mark.
QUESTION: Very quickly, sir. Wouldn’t recognizing the Council give the rebels (inaudible) and make it a lot easier (inaudible) speed up the delegitimizing of Qadhafi? Why the reluctance? (Inaudible).
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: As I said before, I think that it’s a – it’s under –we are – it’s under advisement here. We are considering the issue of recognition, but it does – it runs into several legal questions, several questions of international law, and I – we are – there are other things that countries can do short of recognition at this particular point, and I – it’s not prevented us from doing the things that we need to do with respect to showing our very, very strong support for the Council.
MR. TONER: Mark.
QUESTION: There’s been some reporting that suggests that as rebels have cleared out towns, they’ve actually put loyalists – Qadhafi loyalists into the same jails that Qadhafi was using for his – that he threw opposition people into. And I wonder whether, notwithstanding what you said earlier about the good start the Council’s off to, are you troubled by anything you’ve seen on the part of the rebels in terms of their own behavior in the towns and cities that they’ve gone into? And then, I guess to address – to put it in broader terms, a lot of analysts will continue to say we don’t know anything about the rebels. Do you think that’s a wrong statement?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: With respect to the allegations of potential rebel atrocities, I guess you would call them, I really – I don’t have any information about that. We’re very – in our consultations with them, like I said, we have been very strong in telling them you need to be careful with your messaging, who are you, because this part of the – of their ability to influence the international community. I would hope, certainly, that those kind of things that you spoke about are not taking place. But I think we’ll have to – I think we’ll have time; we’ll have to wait and see if, in fact, they are, and then we’ll have to deal with it.
With respect to the opposition – I’m sorry, the question was?
QUESTION: The question was: Is it wrong when people say we don’t know anything about who the rebels are?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: The – I think for the American people at large, the international community at large, let’s face it, the information about Libya has not been widely disseminated. I mean, I was in Libya as of the end of December and I still had very prominent businessmen calling me and asking if we still had sanctions on them. So I think the – if that kind of – at that kind of level, if information about Libya is not clear, I don’t think it’s surprising that the average individual or even the individuals in this room or individuals in governments throughout the world would have questions about who these people are. Like I said in the beginning, we know some of them, we’re trying to get to know more of them, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can make a judgment that this is a hundred percent kosher, so to speak, group. But like I said, the personalities that we are dealing with, the actions that they’ve taken, the statements that they have made, have all led us to conclude, at least at this beginning stage, that they are a positive force and ones that we should be engaged with at this point.
MR. TONER: Last two questions there.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, if you could talk a little bit about an Algeria-based terrorist group that it’s in – most recent iteration called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, what influence have they had in your time there, more recently in the past couple of months? And what concerns do you have about their infiltration as we move forward?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Well, it’s clear that the AQIM is a danger to the region. Certainly, we have worked closely with our fellow governments in the region to stop and to gather information about them and to stop any potential operations that they might carry out.
From the start, when I first met with the representatives of the Council, I said, they told me that they were aware that there could be a problem with AQIM trying to take advantage of the situation; after all, we don’t know what the situation at the borders are. And it’s possible in a situation like this that you could have some advantage – taking advantage. And in fact, they told me that at the very first week of the crisis that there had been an effort by some AQIM members to infiltrate, but the Council, in fact, had caught them, so – but it was maybe three or four at the time. So they’re very aware of the problem.
Obviously, Colonel Qadhafi has used the AQIM card, in fact, to say – and this is in all the discussions that we’ve had – there has been unrelenting litany ad nauseam that this is AQIM, this is not a homegrown protest movement and it’s – as a way to discredit and disparage the opposition. It’s clearly a card that he thinks he might be able to get some benefit of. It’s patently ridiculous. But do we have concerns about AQIM? Certainly, we do. But I think the Council is also aware of that as well.
MR. TONER: Okay. Last question, Nicole.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Ambassador. Two things. You’ve said that you’ve offered the opposition/rebels all the help that – or any help that they might wish. Have they asked you for anything specifically? And secondly, have they been invited to take part in the meeting on Tuesday in London?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Since the beginning of the crisis, they have been clear that they would like recognition, certainly from the United States, from the international community. They have made requests for arms. They have made requests for a whole range of things. And on each of those issues we have said that we would consider that and, in fact, have provided some humanitarian support. And as I said, the other issues are still being discussed. Nothing is off the table at this particular point.
With respect to whether they’ve been invited, that will be a question for our British hosts. I’m not sure that --
QUESTION: I’ll ask them, but do you know –
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: Yeah, I don’t know.
QUESTION: -- if some might be there?
AMBASSADOR CRETZ: I do not know.
QUESTION: Thank you.