A Brief Summary Of My Contacts With US Officials
By: Mohamed Ben Ghalbon(*)
Neglecting the documentation of political experiences in the Arab world is a major deficiency from which political decisions and stands badly suffer. The majority of politicians and activists ignore recording their personal experiences depending on memory and waiting for the “right time” to publish. Often the “right time” does not materialise during the lifetime of the person. Others chose to keep the information to themselves with the intention of including it in future memoirs, only to discover later that the amount of valuable information in their possession is insufficient for a book of an appropriate size. Whatever the reasoning, the result is the loss of pieces of vital material essential for building informed opinion.
Due to these failings and lack of credible archive centres in our region, one is forced to rely on rumours and conflicting stories to provide the necessary material to reinforce his case when confronting political abuse or defending a national issue.
The evident unconvincing stature of some of the Arab political opposition groupings clearly reflects the quality of information held by the concerned people. Worse still are the analysis by the ordinary who has no credible information at his disposal to make sound judgements to adopt or reject given stands. Decisions built on rumours and well-travelled stories make the citizen his own and the country’s worst enemy.
As the Chinese proverb says “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”, I decided to place the modest information I learnt over the past 25 years, while serving our Libyan case, in the domain of history through this free medium in the hope that it may aid others who may wish to participate in serving the national cause. Sharing this type of information will doubtless help Libyans make sense of perplexing but crucial events.
I select to start this initiative by giving a brief summary of the series of meetings I had during 1982 and 84 with officials from the American administration who were directly responsible for Libyan-American affairs. I wish to add that the meetings were not conducted on conditions of secrecy.
I agreed to participate in the series of meetings out of my ever eagerness to present my country’s case and solicit support to help the Libyan people rid themselves of the dreadful injustices and oppression they suffered since 1st Sept 1969. No doubt the USA have the means to both cause harm as well as end it, and that it has vital interests in Libya.
A series of lengthy meetings with US officials in 1982 started after initiatives on their part in an Arab capital. These meetings moved on to Washington and later returned to the capital where they started and later ended. In the opening of the first meeting, the veteran Arthur Niner interrupted it to greet me with a warm welcome and a firm hand shake and commented on the idea of the Libyan Constitutional Union saying “I salute the style”, adding that he would follow progress of the meetings and talks through reports that would reach him regularly from his colleagues, whom he hoped that I would listen to and cooperate with. Over a three-month period I had several discussions (a total of some 20 hours), with periods of interruption where I had to return to Manchester to consult my colleagues in the LCU. I ensured that travel and accommodation expenses were from my own budget.
Chats during coffee and lunch breaks outside the formal meetings, invariably focused on attempting to see whether the long-term implications of the LCU concept, the variety of benefits it brought to Libya, the probable ramifications in the region, and the impossibility of opposing this movement publicly in the free world, came accidentally or were the result of deliberate planning. They were also very keen to know whether the LCU was created, sponsored or supported by Britain. I found that I had to repeat several times my assurances that the British had absolutely no interest in us.
They were astonished by our intention to bring together exiled Libyan dignitaries (including former prime ministers, ministers, elected members of parliament and heads of communities and other prominent and intellectual Libyans) to establish a national committee analogous to the national assembly which formulated the Libyan Constitution in 1951. The assembly we had in mind would begin by publicly renewing allegiance to the King as we (LCU) had done. The second stage of our initiative was for His Majesty to form from its members a government in exile that would gain its international recognition and national legitimacy from his constitutional status that could never be annulled by a military coup d'état. The government in exile would go on to demand regaining the Libyan seat in the United Nations and Libya’s properties used by the military coup as embassies, and use them as offices of the new structure in countries which respect international law and appreciate constitutional legitimacy.
The American team found such a precedent somewhat too much for the Libyans and were unable to hide their disapproval of the King playing a role in a future Libya. After additional exchanges of views and future visions, we reached a dead end and, with not mild hard feelings, parted company. I clearly understood that the Americans’ intention were not sincere in changing the situation in Libya. As for the LCU, it was apparent that it confused their plans and our surfacing to the arena was not a welcome surprise. I understood through various phases of the talks that the Libyan and the American priorities did not exactly go hand in hand. Libya’s interests did not in fact rank even a distant second position.
Before parting company, I was offered an expert position in the Middle Eastern Affairs office in the US State Department for a handsome annual salary and extensive facilities on condition that I leave the UK and never return. The suggestion was that my activities would move to where the US State Department decided. There was also a hint to the possibility of cooperation in the future to allow some constitutional gains in Libya after existing American schemes have completed their course.
When I responded to the person I was talking to, that I could not see anyone in the American Administration worthy of being my superior, he confirmed with a great deal of determination and absolute resolve that I would find all Arab doors closed in my face and the vast majority of prominent and influential Libyan personalities would ferociously block my way and become personal enemies. Later years confirmed that he meant what he said precisely. The LCU was forced to play its role in the Libyan case alone and without help from any quarter. It made painfully slow but firm progress against much opposition. Further, it made a distinguished impact on the Libyan case and coloured the national struggle with distinctive marks that originate from our unique national legacies. It revived and re-affirmed concepts and principles many believed they had succeeded in burying and for ever deprived the Libyan people of.
During that period, we witnessed, with immense distress, America’s “friends” in the Libyan opposition fully engaged in attempting to implement the very plans we had decisively rejected, and painfully watched the certain failure we had anticipated.
With immense sorrow we watched the uprising of the cream of the Libyan society deliberately being contained into a frame that progressively led it to the land of depressing disappointment and wasteful destruction of much promising potential. No one was prepared to listen to our warnings. Influenced by an over simplified calculation and an imaginary rapid victory, colleagues abstained from hearing our calls for reassessment.
America’s “friends” in the opposition tried more than once to re-package the constitutional principle and marginalize the LCU. Attempts failed because of lack of constitutional understanding and conviction.
In 1984 we were encouraged by a courtesy letter from the US State Department to consider re-starting talks. The letter, dated 3rd August 1984, was from the Director of the Office of North African Affairs, who stated that he was writing on instructions from Mr. James Baker (then White House Chief of Staff). He also wrote that he regretted that I did not find recent meetings with U.S government officials satisfactory.
After much deliberation the decision was made to re-start talks. I travelled to Washington on December 2nd , 1984. On December 6th I met a gentleman I had not known previously. He was fully informed of the details of the previous meetings. He introduced himself by, I suspect, a pseudonym, as the head of the bureau responsible for the Libyan case. He made clear that he was quite independent from the White House and that he did not belong to the State Department but refused to acknowledge that he worked for the CIA. After several hours of talks we reached the same dead end as in 1982. The man was obviously relieved by this outcome and admitted that he had wished for this conclusion and in fact only met with me to please the White House (meaning Mr James Baker). He added that his department would never deal with the LCU unless forced, despite the fact that it is (in his view) the only Libyan organisation worthy of recognition. He went on to elaborate that this was because success of the LCU concept would make an encouraging precedent in the region, the very thing his bureau had been making sure would never happen since the 1940s. These concerns, the gentleman suggested, were missing from the White House. However, he volunteered to offer a limited conditional assistance to the LCU to oblige the White House, which according to him, had asked his department more than once to “aid Mohammed” (meaning myself). The condition for aid was that it would not be of a political nature. It was clear to me that he was drawing me toward a defiant response similar to my reaction in 1982 in order to end the meeting with a sour note from my part. This, I suspected, would relieve him from the responsibility of contradicting the instruction from the White House. I resisted being drawn and did not see refusing the initiative from the White House would be in the interest of the national Libyan case. I went on to request that they put us, with recommendations, in touch with one of the American Organisations involved in spreading democracy in the world to finance establishing a centre for the LCU equipped with communication and promotional facilities and with adequate protection from Gaddafi’s terrorist activities. The centre, I explained, would enable us to more effectively spread the constitutional awareness that had been erased by the machinery of Gaddafi’s regime until times improved in favour of our case. He refused. But went on to say that I held all the winning cards in the game but my own people let me down. Adding that, had the exiled Libyans donated just the coins in the piggy banks of their children, he (Bureau) would not only have found himself forced to cooperate with me, but would actually be compelled to serve me because he could not want to appear to the American public to be against a case such as this one. He went on to say that they (the Libyans) had no taste for this advanced standard which must be forcefully claimed by nations, not handed over as a gift. He made clear that he would not spend the American taxpayers funds to hand the Libyans an honour they do not deserve. He went on to present an alternative offer. His department would finance me and guide my steps to publish a periodical from which I would keep the profits on condition that they (his bureau) would oversee the activities, approve all publications and that I stay away from the Libyan case. I refrained from responding and quickly changed the subject to end the meeting by recording my misgivings about their Libyan policy and my fears from it. I stated that I was alarmed by the fact that the rapid deterioration in the Libyan infrastructure was not happening by accident. The revival of tribalism which was promoted as an alternative to the state’s infrastructure could easily be manipulated to turn into an inflammatory and uncontrollable security nightmare. I was suspicious of the insistence shown by America’s “friends” in the Libyan opposition on dismissing the gravity of this trend, refusal to acknowledge the problem and silencing voices that may attempt to highlight it(**).
I wondered (to the gentleman) what were the crimes committed by the Libyans against the American people to earn such intense enmity.
I had not been prepared for the reaction that followed. The confident and aloof man lost his temper. I had obviously touched a raw nerve and clearly surprised him. He was aware of what I was describing including details and likely consequences. However, he had not expected me to see through the events and figure out seemingly accidental developments. In his outburst, the gentleman volunteered much, a great deal of which, I am certain, he had not intended to reveal. The only part I wish to record here is that he challengingly endorsed what had been said adding that he personally believed that a blood bath was what the Libyans needed to wash off their idleness and vanity to become worthy of the wealth that exploded under their feet undeservedly. He defied me to change any of the set plans or alter their course. The White House, he noted, should find their own route to deal with me if they insist on doing so.
I left the meeting and headed for the nearest travel office. I left Washington on December 7th 1984.
I share these experiences in the belief that the information concerns all. Changing the course of events in Libya’s national interest is a duty for all.
(*) Mr. Ghalbon is Chairman of the Libyan Constitutional Union
(**) “A group of them flocked to the office of “Asharq Al-Awsat” in London to protest the newspaper’s publishing on 10 July 1992 of an interview in which I raised concerns about the possibility of the outbreak of civil war in Libya”.