Biden admin ‘actively’ working to reopen US embassy in Libya

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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is actively working to restore a diplomatic presence in Libya, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators on Wednesday, nearly a decade after unrest in the Libyan capital forced American diplomats to withdraw.

The United States has lacked a diplomatic mission in the country since 2014, when more than 150 embassy personnel in Tripoli were evacuated under heavy military escort to neighboring Tunisia amid Libya’s renewed civil war. Today, US diplomats assigned to Libya are based out of the Libyan Foreign Office in the US Embassy compounds in Tunis.

Blinken declined to give a timetable for when the embassy might reopen but told a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Wednesday that the administration was looking into it.

“This is something we are actively working on,” said Blinken, “I would like to see that we will be able to re-establish a continuous presence in Libya.”

In its fiscal year 2024 spending plan unveiled this month, the State Department requests funding for a “potential Diplomatic Travel Support Operations Facility in Libya and related operations for a potential presence in the US.”

A senior US official previously told Al-Monitor that the administration is “looking internally and as appropriate in consultation with Congress” regarding steps towards reopening. The official also hinted at “travel more regular and senior” to Libya as security conditions permit.

This week, the State Department sent its top diplomat for the Middle East – Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf – to the country for a surprise visit with Libyan leaders including Gen. Khalifa Hifter and the head of Libya’s presidential council, Mohammed. al-Menfi. Leaf’s trip follows a visit from CIA director Bill Burns in January.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed concern about remote diplomacy in a hearing Wednesday, telling Blinken that without a permanent U.S. presence in Libya, “we’re going to have a hard time finding our equity and a lot of taxpayer dollars.” defend. spent there.”

Murphy noted that several countries have reopened their embassies in the war-torn country, including Italy in 2017, France in 2021 and the United Kingdom in 2022. But the political risk for the Europeans to return the diplomatic staff to Libya.

The September 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, brought increased scrutiny to US diplomatic posts. The process of reopening the embassy would involve notifications to Congress, where Benghazi remains a political issue.

“If there was another attack on our embassy, ​​then there will be a lot of finger-pointing and blame,” said Tom Hill, a North Africa expert at the US Institute of Peace. “Congress didn’t want to be the ones who had to explain why they approved a new embassy in a country that was so dangerous.”

A State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor that the administration plans to resume diplomatic operations in Libya “as soon as conditions permit,” adding that the process involves careful logistical and security planning “as along with interagency coordination to meet security and legal requirements.”

Talk of reopening the embassy comes as the civil war draws to a close, the result of a 2020 UN-brokered ceasefire between the country’s warring factions. The UN’s top diplomat for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, is pushing for presidential and legislative elections to be held by the end of 2023.

In his testimony Wednesday, Blinken noted that US diplomats are helping to move the election process forward but that participation “would obviously be much easier and more effective if they were on the ground day in and day out .”

Ben Fishman, former director of the National Security Council for North Africa and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says there is no substitute for diplomacy on the ground.

“The job of diplomats is to understand what’s going on in the country, and you can only do that to a certain extent if you’re in Tunisia or Malta,” Fishman said. “But restoring presence is much harder than achieving it — especially after the political firestorm that was Benghazi.”

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