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Special Briefing On U.S.-Libya Relations

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs
Robert Wood, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
September 2, 2008

(3:15 p.m. EDT)

MR. WOOD: Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming. You all know Assistant Secretary Welch. He’s going to talk to you about the Secretary’s upcoming trip to Libya. Before asking your questions, if you could just identify yourself and your news organization, that would be greatly appreciated.

Assistant Secretary Welch, thank you and welcome.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Hi. Well, Sean announced today the Secretary of State would be visiting North Africa. This will be her first visit as Secretary of State to that area of NEA, and the trip will include a stop in Tripoli. This will be the first visit by an American cabinet officer to Libya in quite a number of years and the first trip by a Secretary of State, to the best of our knowledge, since 1953, which my boss happily points out was before she was born.

We intend in this visit to cover a number of issues. First, we want to advance our bilateral relationship, which we think is in the interest of both countries. Second, we want to pay some attention to some of the regional issues, and by that I mean the ones up in North Africa, broadly speaking, but then also the Middle East in general, and then exchange views with the Libyan leadership and others on international events as well.

Objectives in the other stops, I think, are a little more straightforward, if you will. As you know, we have good relations with the other countries in North Africa. Our relationship with Libya has improved substantially, but I would describe it as very much improved in the course of this Administration. So we think with this trip at this time we can mark a significant advance in America’s relations with that part of the NEA area, with North Africa, in a significant manner. 

The bilateral issues vary from instance to instance, but I think most of your attention right now is probably on Libya, and so we can go into that in the questions and answers.

Where are we in the claims settlement agreement? As you know, I briefed you all on this agreement which was signed August 14, a few days ago. The Libyan side has gone through their procedures to establish the fund from their end and to begin to look at the resources for that fund. We’re in touch with the Libyans on this constantly. As you know, we are pressing for the full implementation of this agreement. None of the U.S. obligations pursuant to the agreement kick into effect until the appropriate amounts are deposited in the accounts for the American victims and for the Libyans as well. I expect that, if necessary, the Secretary will take this up during the course of her visit. 

We’re also very interested in what else is happening in the North Africa area, especially since there’s been a recrudescence of terrorism there, particularly in Algeria and there’s been a extra-constitutional change of leadership in Mauritania. But we intend also to discuss with those countries developments in other countries in that Sahel region, in particular Chad and Sudan. 

So with that brief introduction, let’s open it up for questions. If you would please identify yourself – some of you I know, but I’m forgetful, too. 

QUESTION: Dan Dombey, Financial Times. Assistant Secretary, how – could you expand a little bit on how you see the relationship right now? Qadhafi said that it was neither friends nor enemies recently. Is that how you see it? And in particular, how do you address the Libyan rumbling that it hasn’t seen enough from the U.S. when they come to it from the high-level visits that some of the Europeans have brought? Is this visit (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I thought Colonel Qadhafi put a positive gloss on the development of Libya’s relationships internationally, and particularly with the United States, on the occasion of his September 1 speech. That’s an important day for Libyans. It’s their national day. And typically, it’s at that event that you see statements from the leadership or around that event you see statements from the leadership indicating the direction of their foreign policy.

And setting aside the adjectives one way or another that people use on these and other occasions, I thought he was signaling a way forward here. It is true that our relationship in the past has been at times very adversarial, but that has changed substantially. It changed as Libya began to recognize the isolation that it had imposed upon itself from its involvement in past acts of terror, and as it began to look at other important changes in its foreign policy; for example, the decision to foreswear weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them. Those are really important and dramatic changes in the behavior of a country, and we believe they come as a result of a serious, rigorous and bipartisan effort over a number of years and different administrations to use American influence for the purpose of changing the behavior of countries that once were very, very difficult for us. 

This is now, and looking forward I think we can see the path toward a much more normal relationship.  Libya is not involved in terrorism anymore and it has foresworn terrorism. It has given up its weapons of mass destruction. In fact, it’s been verified by the U.S. and others. They’re now on – have an elected seat on the Security Council. And we are engaged on a broad variety of topics of interest to the United States, ranging from the decisions that the Security Council undertakes – for example, on an issue like Iran, where I would point out Libya voted positively for Resolution 1803, and there are other elected members of the Council who saw fit to abstain even though they excellent relations – relationships with the United States. 

We are also involved with them discussing Sudan. I can remember when I took this job some years ago, that was a rather narrow conversation about a humanitarian corridor from Benghazi into Darfur for the shipment of food products to – for assistance. Today, it’s a broad-ranging and very political conversation about what’s the right way to take on the Darfur issue.

In Chad, Libya was quite helpful to us some months ago, when our Embassy came under siege during fighting, and it facilitated the transit of American aircraft in for evacuation.

In short, we have a whole variety of interests now that we’re trying to represent at the highest possible level. The Secretary’s visit, I think, will be an occasion to move these things forward. I know the Libyan leadership looks forward to discussing this and other things, but we want to listen to them. 

This, for the United States is, I would say, a success in our foreign policy. And we believe it’s been built over several administrations, but particularly in most dramatic fashion during this one. And Congress has helped out on this, too. I mean, in all honesty, we are not very fond of some of the legislation passed at the beginning of this year, but it did serve to influence the decisions that Libya made. And when Congress decided that it would empower the Administration to lift the restrictions in that legislation upon certification by the Secretary that the standards had been met, I think that gave an important boost to these negotiations.

So we feel headed into this that this is an area where, again, there’s been very positive movement across the board, and we want to memorialize that with this visit and then look forward to what else we can do in the future. 

QUESTION: Sue Pleming, Reuters. Are there going to be any announcements made during this trip? For example, when the Foreign Minister visited Washington in January, there was a scientific and technical agreement. Are you going to announce any specific things?

And then, secondly, are you going to raise the case of Fathi al-Jahmi and other human rights concerns that I know you’ve been pushing on but that still haven’t been resolved, and the trip is going ahead despite those outstanding issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, there are other issues that are outstanding, too, and we may raise those. As you know, I typically do not give readouts of what are private discussions. But when I mention that we have a variety of bilateral issues that we will be raising, among those is the human rights issue, broadly speaking and specifically speaking. 

We actually can have this discussion now with Libya in a manner that we couldn't before because we have an Embassy in Tripoli, and it represents itself to the Libyan Government on a daily basis on issues of concern to the United States. Of course, when the Secretary visits, she’ll put into her own words all these subjects and we’ll let you know afterwards, in general, how it went, Sue.


QUESTION: But would you – would you see it as a goodwill gesture for Muammar Qadhafi to release Fathi al-Jahmi?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we think he should have been released before. You know, I think you can be confident that we have a long record of having discussed this with the Libyan Government. And it’s not the only bilateral issue, by the way. There are others, too. And one sign of a maturing relationship is that each side can be honest to each other about such things. 

QUESTION: What’s the – I don’t understand why – why is she doing this trip when the mechanism hasn’t been funded yet? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, first of all, having the mechanism is a significant and important change from the past. 

QUESTION: Well, it’s a mechanism that’s got – it’s empty. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, bank accounts can be empty or they can be full. 

QUESTION: Right. So –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH:  And our belief is this one is – they are looking at ways to fund it. And I am confident that they will do so. However, if I’m wrong and it is not funded, then none of the American obligations under this agreement kick into effect until it is fully funded. 

QUESTION: I understand that. But I just – but why the trip before that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the trip was never conditioned on this or on any other issue. 

QUESTION: I’m not suggesting that it was or – I’m asking why it wasn’t. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It’s the same question, one way or the other. We do this kind of diplomatic engagement because we have a range of interests, and this is an important one, and we expect to see it satisfied. And we think that this visit is a good way to advance it. 

QUESTION: Okay. And do you know – are there any – I know that this is going to come up in Algiers, but are there any Libyans in Guantanamo? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes, there are. 

QUESTION: And so -- substantial? I’ll go back and look, but I mean, is it more than five, more than – is it a handful or is – because there have been problems, I know the Algerians, especially, that people have been repatriated and then arrive back in Algeria and all of a sudden, they’ve disappeared. I presume that’s something you’re going to bring up in Algiers. What exactly on this issue are you going to bring up -- 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the detainee issues vary from place to place. And I want to be cautious on this because -- I’ll discuss it in broad terms. But I expect this to be a topic of conversation in each of the Secretary’s stops. And again, the circumstances vary. With respect to Algeria, my understanding is the current status of the two individuals returned is that they’ve been released. So there’s no issue of their disappearance. But that said, our goals are for those who are not going to be sub judice in the United States in some manner or under our system, that we would like to look for ways to repatriate them. And in all cases, we’ll be raising that with the governments concerned, including Libya. 

QUESTION: Do you know how many are –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I can’t remember exactly, but these are not the largest populations there by a long shot. But no number is insignificant in this regard. My objective for that area for which I am responsible, the NEA area, is to reduce that number to zero. 

MR. WOOD: Libby.

QUESTION: David, Libby Leist, NBC. What can you tell us about this Trade and Investment Framework Agreement which says – that she says is going to be signed in the near future? How long –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we have a number of initiatives underway with Libya and there may be -- I think Sue asked me before if we intend to announce anything. But we want to look at ways in which we can move things forward on those issues of concern to us.

And – but, Libby, just generally speaking, the philosophy here is to look at ways to deepen our relationship. We think that that’s going to be in Libya’s interest. We think it will be in the United States interest. A trade and investment framework agreement is a vehicle to enhancing and regularizing the economic relationship. As you know, Libya is a small country in population terms, but a wealthy country in resource terms. And that’s of interest to many American firms. They have a considerable oil export potential, and we would like to be involved in that. But it’s – their regulatory environment, their economic policy environment is less mature than it is in other countries in the immediate area. So we’re looking at ways to work with and to develop that better. We think that will help Libya because it will attract more business interest in the country. And of course, it will help us in commercial and economic terms as well. 

The TIFA agreements are typically a precursor to broader, more established trade relationships. We have quite a number throughout the NEA area. I can’t – I don’t think I have that off the top of my head exactly. But it is a sign of a maturing relationship. 

QUESTION: Yes. Joyce Karam with Al Hayat. Thanks for doing this. Historically, there has been a lot of concerns from countries in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, most recently Iraq – over Libyan role, mostly in terrorism. You said before that the Libyans have committed to not to have any role in terrorism anymore. What role do you see, you know, specifically related to these countries, Libya taking? How do you see, you know, Libyan-Saudi relations going from here? And also, have you been talking to the Europeans about this? Are the Europeans, mostly the French, happy with the openness of Washington to Tripoli? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, it’s a difficult question, Joyce, for me to answer, because I represent the United States and not these other countries, and they much better positioned to speak with respect to their interests. Some of the countries you mention already have quite advanced relationships with Libya. The French President has visited Libya. A British Prime Minister visited. So Europe is, I think, if anything, well ahead of us in this respect. 

Saudi Arabia has a normal diplomatic relationship with Libya, despite some tensions in the past between them, as you know. You know, from time to time, other countries I see in the news do raise issues of the past. That’s up to them how they pursue them. It is a reality and a very uncomfortable one in the U.S.-Libyan relationship that there have been these very difficult and painful episodes.  

We’ve tried to help American citizens address these in the most fair and responsible way. I believe we’ve done a good job of helping and protecting Americans in that respect. But some part of helping and protecting Americans is also by pushing forward on our national interest in dealing with this country, especially as we expect that that is based upon cooperation against terror in the future. That’s the undertaking the Libyan Government has made not simply to the United States, but to the UN Security Council. 

MR. WOOD: How about here, and then we’ll go (inaudible).

QUESTION: Bay Fang with the Chicago Tribune. You may have touched on this when you briefed on the claims settlement agreement, but I was wondering if that kind of agreement can be used as a precedent for other cases pending in the U.S. courts about sort of acts of terrorism, like the ones that are pending against the Palestinian Authority. Has there been any discussion about that? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH:  Well, I’ve learned from experience that these are all difficult problems that may on the surface look comparable to one another, but are frequently not. I do believe there is one basis of comparability, if you will. We would like to show that it is possible to fix these problems and to do so in a manner that is responsive to the interests of the American citizens, that is protective of our national security, and that advances our other interests that are out there. In the case of Libya, I think we are managing to do that. Our diplomacy has been very careful, but it’s been very serious over a number of years, especially throughout this Administration, but also in the 1990s. And it’s paid off. 

Now, there is a – there is still a settlement to be done under this agreement that we have. The agreement frames it, makes very clear what each side has to do. But the United States is not going to do any of those steps to implement this agreement until we are satisfied that the funds are there to address our – the issues of our claimants. So that’s where we are. 

Now, what model other – how other countries might see that is one model – one view of the model. And look, it’s a reality that there are some states out there that, notwithstanding the pressures being put upon them, the offer of a more reasonable path forward, are choosing to defy the interests of the international community on issues like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. I mean, the case in point is, I think, Iran, but there are others, too. And it’s very useful to be able to say, look, if you made a different choice, there is a path forward here, you can get out of this box if you behave responsibly. 

The other part of your question is: How do you translate this kind of an agreement into other situations? And there, that’s a little bit more difficult, because I think those depend on the cases involved. I mean, in the Libyan case, there was a bewildering array of these suits and claims and so it was very complex in how to address it. And I wouldn’t want to foreshadow that as the ideal model for others. But there’s no question that some elements of that might be useful in other cases. While we were looking at this negotiation with Libya, one of things we did do is go back and look at these past examples and see if they offered us any clue or any ideas on how to deal with these subjects. And fortunately, we have an excellent team of lawyers here who are paid lowly government salaries for doing superb work on this stuff. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Do you think it could – sorry, can I just follow up? Do you think it could be seen by the Palestinian Authority as – for example, as a way forward on the cases that are pending against them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I think what they’re exploring now is direct contacts to try and resolve those cases. I wouldn’t want to prejudice that discussion by answering your question directly.

QUESTION: Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. You said that it’s a diplomatic success. But why – why was it so long to come? Why it took seven years after Qadhafi’s decision to renounce its WMDs? Is it now that – is it now that you need to claim a success because it’s the end of the Administration, so you have to push --

QUESTION: Yes. 

(Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, Matt’s cynicism is breathtaking. He – the Libyan leadership decided five years ago, not seven years ago, that --

QUESTION: I’m sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: -- they wanted to be out of the WMD business. It took it quite a long time to reconcile itself that it should be out of the terrorism business, too. In my business, I’m prone to trust people, but I also demand to verify things. Sometimes verification takes a while. These negotiations are very complex, Sylvie. We started this one at the beginning of this year when Libya came to us with a suggestion for a comprehensive settlement. But it took six months to do. And it’s because they took it very seriously and so did we. And – I mean, the agreement that is there shows that, I think.

Would I like it all to have gone faster? Certainly. But I prefer that it be there to be very clear and well grounded, and that we not make any mistakes.

QUESTION: But you said yourself that Europe is well ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, they’re well ahead in their relationships, yes.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. So they scored the successes earlier than the U.S?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I would say they could not have scored their successes were it not for us. But yes, that they should have gotten a little advance credit on it. It’s maybe more their way than ours, but so be it.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) Italian News Agency, ANSA. There was a recent agreement between Libya and Italy. Was it helpful for you or not?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I’m not briefed on this agreement yet. I haven’t spoken to my Italian colleagues about it. One of the Libyans with whom we were working was deeply involved in this issue between Libya and Italy. I think that as Libya has reemerged into the international community, it has enabled progress for a number of countries on a number of fronts. I mean, broadly speaking, I think this is a good thing.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: One – Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. One question I’m still not totally clear of on the mechanism. I know the Libyans have made a big deal about the 40 victims they say of the ’86 bombing. Is there an element of – in this agreement that allows for them to be compensated? I’ve read – how exactly does that work? Who’s funding that? Is that clear?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the agreement is a claims settlement agreement. There are claims against the United States in Libyan courts by Libyan citizens who allege that they were harmed by the U.S. military retaliation for the La Belle disco bombing. And there are, as you know, a whole variety of cases in the U.S. courts against Libya. So the agreement envisions that once the agreed level of funding is reached, that each side will take care of its own victims and these claims will then be extinguished.

It doesn’t go into effect, however, until the agreed funding is reached. So it is in that sense symmetrical, yes. And we have an interest in that these cases against the United States in Libyan courts would go away.

QUESTION: You didn’t answer who’s funding it.

QUESTION: How much?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the fund, as I – when – you weren’t here in Jay, when we did the readout after the signature of the agreement. But the fund is available there for any potential contributor --

QUESTION: Including you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Including you, Jay, a Wall Street journalist, a financial powerhouse, you know. Who knows? It might be able to muster something to contribute.

QUESTION: How much –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It’s voluntary. The United States is not pressuring anybody to participate, including any American companies. But if folks want to donate, they’re welcome to do so.

QUESTION: And is it for sure that Condi’s meeting with Qadhafi? Is that set or can you say?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, the Secretary of State will be going to each of these countries and Secretary Rice will be meeting with the leadership in each one of them.

QUESTION: Sean confirmed it today (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Oh, he did?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, he did.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Okay. Charlie.

Sean, confirmed it. Sorry, Jay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But he didn’t say where. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH:  I’m sure that we will be treated in a very hospitable way every place we go.

QUESTION: David, on a related issue. Can you talk about the discussions the Department might have had with families who were concerned that this wasn’t a great mechanism and the side* of policy versus personal stake in settling these claims?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, look, we’ve – Charlie, we’ve stayed in touch with the representatives of the families, and of all claimants for that matter, for a long time now. We’ve tried to keep them informed on a regular basis. Before Sean’s announcement today, we communicated that we would be making the announcement to the families and their representatives. I spoke to some people on the Hill earlier today as well.

I believe that the agreement that we have offers a fair and rapid way for many of those people to see their claims satisfied. That said, it doesn’t take away any of their rights if it’s not implemented. The current status quo is the status quo until the agreement is implemented. And the agreement can only be implemented on the basis of it receiving full funding as agreed between us.

QUESTION: That’s why – I have a sort of higher problem with this. If the status quo is the status quo until the thing is funded, why is she going?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Because we think that this helps advance our interest.

QUESTION: You think that your – well –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Including to get the agreement implemented.

QUESTION: You think – okay, so she will – when she goes, she’ll be saying, hey, cough up the cash?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: You know, Matt, we normally express ourselves in a different way. (Laughter.) But you’re welcome to try doing this job if you think that way works better. We will press forward on all these things. It may be that it will be implemented by the time we get there. Personally, I don’t know because that is a very large sum of money and it’s – even for countries with some wherewithal, it’s not all that easy to aggregate these funds in one place so quickly. That said, none of our obligations are triggered until it is satisfied. 

But we believe that approaching this in the way we have, by consistent engagement with Libya over a long and sustained period of time, more often than not results in success. That is – that is one of the things we will be doing during this trip is trying to advance that.

MR. WOOD: We have time for two brief questions.

QUESTION: Can I just clarify something? Sean -- I thought Sean said today that there are guarantees that the funds are going to be met in – very quickly.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I’m optimistic. But “guarantee” is a big word.

QUESTION: Well, I don’t know if he used the word “guaranteed”. But he said he’s been assured.

QUESTION: He said it would be very soon.

QUESTION: Yeah. He said he’d been assured by a certain official who’s sitting in this room right now. (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Well, I --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I’m optimistic on this, Libby. And you know, I wouldn’t say that if there weren’t some evidence for it. That said, as of today, those funds are not yet in the account. And until they’re in that account, we’re not doing anything pursuant to that agreement.

MR. WOOD: One last question.

QUESTION: Michele Kelemen, National Public Radio. I just have – you know, this – you talk about changing the behavior. But this is still the same leader that’s been there forever. Mad dog of the Middle East, as Reagan once called him. And I wonder, you know, how the Secretary is preparing to see him, what kind of behavior you’re expecting from him personally. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I have met with Colonel Qadhafi several times. And it’s – he is a person of personality and experience. I am very confident that America’s senior diplomat is quite capable of having a meeting with him and looking after our interest. Secretary Rice typically prepares exhaustively for her meetings, Michele, as you know. She’s a very serious person who studies hard. She is anticipating this one with great interest. She knows the issues of concern, whether those are WMD or Darfur, very, very well. As I said earlier, Libya does have an influence and interest in those things, so there’s a lot to talk about with them.

We don’t refer to Colonel Qadhafi in those terms today. You know that this is a relationship that has had a troubled past, but now it is on a much firmer foundation. He, as leader, has undertaken certain decisions which have really changed things.  It’s important to recognize that. Those are very much in America’s national interest, I would argue also in Libya’s national interest. There are people in Libya who would want to change the course of that country and have very interesting ideas about the future. It’s an important signal when countries from the West, in particular, reach out and try and encourage that trend. And that’s part of what we’ll be doing as well.

MR. WOOD: Thank you, David.  Thank you all.

QUESTION: Thank you.

2008/683


Released on September 2, 2008

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