“We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting
in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi”, US Senator
Joseph Lieberman said during an August 2009 meeting, which also included senators John McCain and Susan Collins.
The records confirm that McCain, the Republican presidential
candidate in 2008, strongly supported US arms sales to Libya and
personally pledged to Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled “al-Qadhafi”) and
his son Muatassim that he would push to get such transfers approved by
Congress. McCain also revealed that the United States was training officers in Gaddafi’s army.
While the Americans pursued the relationship vigorously, they met
with a cautious and sometimes “mercurial” response from the Libyans. In
particular, the mistrustful Libyans wanted security guarantees that the
Americans appeared reluctant to give.
“We can get [equipment] from Russia or China”, Muatassim told
the visiting senators, “but we want to get it from you as a symbol of
faith from the United States”.
In hindsight, given the US support for the NATO war against the
Gaddafi regime, it is not difficult to understand why the Libyans wanted
Nevertheless, Gaddafi received high praise for his “counterterrorism” credentials from US officials.
The documents also reveal that the United States was keen to court
Gaddafi’s sons, flying them to the United States for high level visits.
And, notably, none of the cables regarding high level
meetings quoted in this post made any mention of uS concerns about
“human rights” in Libya. The issue never appeared on the bilateral
Does the removal of the Gaddafi regime now clear the way for the
United States to pursue the plans for integrating Libya into AFRICOM
under what the Americans must hope will be a pliable regime?
'Increased defence cooperation'
In January 2008, US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch met with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdulrahman Shalgam. The classified memo recording the meeting notes:
Welch underscored the importance of increased defense cooperation as a signal of normalcy in the bilateral military relationship,
particularly when considering Libya’s relatively recent rescission from
the state sponsors of terrorism in June 2006. A/S Welch added that the
Libyan government should invite AFRICOM Commander General Ward to Libya
to discuss AFRICOM in greater detail.
The Libyans responded positively but somewhat warily:
Shalgam voiced the Libyan government’s interest in discussing AFRICOM and welcomed General Ward’s visit. However, he cautioned, the
old guard within the MOD [Ministry of Defense] does not favor closer
ties with the USG [US government] (reftel). In particular, General
Abubaker Younes, the second in command, is firmly against cooperation
and will refuse to meet any American official as he views U.S. coalition
forces in Iraq as an occupation force. Nonetheless, Shalgam
explained that it is important for Ward to visit and dispel
misinformation and mistrust of AFRICOM among the Libyan leadership. He
reasserted Libya’s continued, strong objection to U.S. military forces
Shalgam also raised the issue of six C-130 military transport planes
that Libya had purchased from the United States in the early 1970s, but
which were never delivered due to US sanctions that were imposed later
After President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, it appears
General William Ward, the commander of AFRICOM did get his invitation to
visit Libya the following March. Before his visit, Ward received a classified briefing document from the US Embassy in Tripoli setting out US priorities and goals in Libya as well as providing insights into the regime.
The US document notes that after Libya settled various claims
to do with terrorism cases including the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing,
allowed us to move forward on the Mil-Mil MOU [Military to Military
Memorandum of Understanding], which was signed in Washington in
January. It also increased the number of high-level visits
between the two countries including Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi’s two-week
trip to the US in November and his brother Muatassim al-Qadhafi’s trip
to Washington planned for April.
The memo again notes the mistrust on the Libyan side:
Despite the high-level interest in deepening the relationship,
several old-guard regime figures remain skeptical about the
re-engagement project and some facets of our interaction remain at the
mercy of the often mercurial inner circle.
This was a reference to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whom the Americans note, often appeared cooler than his sons.
Seducing Libya on AFRICOM
Ward’s brief, according to the classified cable, was to help overcome Libyan suspicion of US military expansion into Africa. The document advises the general:
Since the former Secretary of State’s visit to Tripoli in
September, regime officials have slowly come to terms with AFRICOM as we
have explained more of your mission. A clear explanation of AFRICOM’s
mandate and expected activities on the continent, as well as a two-way
discussion on areas of military-to-military cooperation will be welcomed
by your interlocutors.
Reiterating AFRICOM’s support and humanitarian roles while allaying
their fears about American troops or bases on the continent is another
message they will be keen to receive. While Libya is a strong
partner on counterterrorism, the Libyans remain wary of initiatives that
put foreign military or intelligence assets too close to their borders.
They are unlikely to join the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism
Partnership, due as much to unwillingness to appear subservient to US
interests as genuine distrust of U.S. intentions from certain old-guard
regime elements. Negotiations on the Mil-Mil MOU [Military to
Military Memorandum of Understanding] stalled on Libyan insistence that
the language include security assurances on par with our NATO
obligations. AFRICOM’s capacity-building component and support for peacekeeping forces may appease some, but we expect your military interlocutors will use your visit as an opportunity to tie their cooperation to security assurances.
Gaddafi is a 'Top partner'
The Ward memo states:
Libya is a top partner in combating transnational terrorism.
The regime is genuinely concerned about the rise of Islamic terrorism
in the Sahel and Sahara and worries that instability and weak
governments to their south could lead to a “belt of terrorism”
stretching from Mauritania to SOMALIA. Al-Qadhafi prides himself on his
recent initiatives with Tuareg tribes to persuade them to lay down arms
and spurn cooperation with al-Qaeda elements in the border region; this
is an issue worth exploring with him, while being mindful that he will
oppose U.S. military activity in what he views as his backyard.
US arms sales to Libya
Throughout bilateral discussions, the Ward briefing memo notes,
“Libyan officials have been keen to purchase US military equipment -
both lethal and non-lethal.” It adds:
Libyan officials presented “wish lists” in the context of signing
the Mil-Mil MOU. Muatassim [Gaddafi] accompanied his father on a
high-profile trip to Moscow in October to discuss potential deals, but
his father’s trips to Belarus and Ukraine were seen as an attempt to
bring the price-point down for weapons deals. Their wish-lists
comprise both lethal and non-lethal materiel and we have told the GOL
that sales will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, particularly since
not all senior USG leaders who would have a say on the subject have been
appointed by the new administration.
The Americans were clearly open to selling weapons to Gaddafi, but were noncommital, as Ward was advised:
In effect, the Libyans have made military sales a key litmus of US
trust and future intentions. In response, you might say that the U.S.
looks forward to developing the bilateral security relationship and this
process will take time; the C130s are a commercial matter best pursued
The memo to General Ward concludes:
We are confident that your visit to Tripoli will open new doors for
continued cooperation. Military cooperation is a key metric to
determine the extent to which the Libyan government wishes to engage
with the US. We hope your visit will assuage the fears of the
more conservative elements of the regime while paving the way for
AFRICOM’s continued success.
Senator McCain pushes for weapons sales
During his August 2009 visit to Tripoli, according to the classified record of the meeting, Senator John McCain was frank about his support for Libya’s weapons requests in a meeting with Muammar and Muatassim Gaddafi:
Senator MCCAIN assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security. He
stated that he understood LIBYA’s requests regarding the rehabilitation
of its eight C-130s (ref D) and pledged to see what he could do to move
things forward in Congress. He encouraged Muatassim to keep in
mind the long-term perspective of bilateral security engagement and to
remember that small obstacles will emerge from time to time that can be
overcome. He described the bilateral military relationship as
strong and pointed to Libyan officer training at U.S. Command, Staff,
and War colleges as some of the best programs for Libyan military
A blueprint for post-Gaddafi Libya?
Nothing in the leaked documents reviewed here suggests that the
NATO-backed removal of the Gaddafi regime was premeditated. On the
contrary, the documents show that the United States was more
enthusiastic about working with Gaddafi than perhaps Gaddafi was with
the Americans – though clearly both stood to gain.
The US sought to expand its military presence in Africa and
Gaddafi wanted to secure his regime against external threats.
At no point were human rights concerns ever an obstacle tous engagement for either the George W. Bush or Obama
The documents support the view that the decision to go to war against
Gaddafi – in the name of “protecting civilians” was more opportunistic –
riding on the back of the “Arab Spring”.
It is likely that after the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian
presidents by popular uprisings in January and February respectively,
top US and NATO decisionmakers believed that once protests started
against it, the Gaddafi regime would be too unstable and unreliable to
Yet, the regime also fought back against the uprising in Libya with a
ferocity that exceeded even the violence of the Tunisian and Egyptian
regimes. It appears likely that US and allied leaders calculated
that with a little push from their bombs, the balance could quickly be
tipped in favour of the rebellion.
This mindset is clear from the claim in February – a month before the
NATO intervention began – by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, that Gaddafi had already fled to Venezuela. It was also clear from statements by US military and political
leaders, once the bombing began, that the US military role would only
last for days.
As it turned out, the war has so far lasted five months, and is not over. The full-extent of atrocities by NATO-backed rebels and Gaddafi loyalists are only now starting to come to light.
But just as the Americans were happy to work with Gaddafi, they will
be as keen to work with his successors, who now owe their positions to
The US must hope that the National Transitional Council (NTC)
which the US has recognised as the new government will be less mercurial
and even more open to “military to military,” and other kinds of ties.