The Abu Dhabi conference, the third meeting of the international Libya Contact Group, focused on two main themes: short-term humanitarian needs in the conflict-torn North African country and long-term planning for what attendees agreed will be a post-Qaddafi Libya.
As intense fighting continued on the ground between Libyan rebels and forces loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi, representatives of Libya’s Transitional National Council responded to the pledges of support with a wait-and-see stance. Representatives of the TNC, which sees itself as the legitimate interim government of a post-Qaddafi Libya, told the conference that Libyans would start to starve to death if $4 billion in food, fuel, and other essentials is not forthcoming.
TNC representatives also expressed frustration about nondelivery of earlier pledges. “Our people are dying,” the TNC’s finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, told reporters at the meeting, according to the Associated Press. “It’s been almost four months now and nothing has materialized so far.”
Contact group members, including the US, focused more on the longer view of Libya’s needs once Qaddafi is chased from power – as they insisted he will be.
“Time is on our side, but we know we must sustain the pressure,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in prepared remarks to the conference. “Qaddafi’s days are numbered,” she said, adding that the US and other international partners are working “to plan for the inevitable: a post-Qaddafi Libya.”
Secretary Clinton suggested after the conference that contacts between “people close to Qaddafi” and some countries she refused to name point to a readiness to negotiate the Libyan leader’s departure from power. Speaking with reporters, Clinton said she saw a “potential for a transition” in the ongoing contacts, although she added that she could not predict if Qaddafi would accept the negotiated terms.
Part of the Libyan opposition’s frustrations stem from what it sees as the glacial pace at which countries are releasing parts of the Libyan assets they hold. The US, for example, holds more than $30 billion in Libyan assets, but on Thursday Clinton announced only $26.5 million in US humanitarian relief.
US officials accompanying Clinton noted that legislation to allow for the release of some Libyan assets to the opposition is working its way through Congress. In the meantime, the relief aid announced Thursday brings to about $80 million the total for US assistance, other than the approximately $1 billion the Pentagon has spent for the US contribution to NATO’s military mission in Libya.
Libyan representatives told the conference that their extended hand was not that of a mendicant, but more that of a bank depositor simply asking to withdraw some funds.
“We are not begging,” Libya’s former foreign minister, Abdul Rahman Shalgam, said, noting that Libya holds $160 billion in frozen assets. Italy’s pledge of nearly $600 million would come in the form of food, fuel, and a loan to help pay Libyan salaries, he said.
In addition to Italy, France announced it would release more than $400 million in frozen Libyan assets to the TNC. Turkey, which has sought to extend its diplomatic influence in the region, announced a $100 million fund for the interim government.
France is one of the few countries to recognize the TNC as Libya’s legitimate government. The US has yet to take that step, which is one factor complicating efforts to release US-held Libyan funds.
The House last week passed a resolution rebuking Mr. Obama for failing to consult Congress on Libya. On Wednesday, two senators – Jim Webb (D) of Virginia and Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee – introduced a similar resolution calling on Obama to give Congress an explanation of the purpose and objectives of the Libya intervention.
“The President has failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States military activities regarding Libya,” the resolution reads in part. It calls for an unclassified report to provide essential information “to Congress and the American public” to evaluate US involvement in Libya.
The administration, on the other hand, is painting the Libya intervention not only as a critical initiative for resolving one country’s conflict and helping to bring about change there, but also as an example of Obama’s concept of multilateral diplomacy.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday en route to the Libya Contact Group meeting, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “More broadly, the Contact Group reflects the President and the Secretary’s model for diplomacy in the 21st century.”
She then offered a definition of that model. “It’s a flexible mechanism which allows us to build and sustain a broad coalition of like-minded states and international organizations which are united in common purpose to advance a shared agenda of peace, security and democratic reform,” she said, “and to translate that agenda into common action.”