Chaos in Libya confounds Congress

By Julian Pecquet for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Libya Business News.

When it comes to Libya, even the lobbyists in Washington are part of the chaos.

On paper, the internationally backed government in the east spent about $265,000 last year seeking to build support in Congress and the BarackObama administration. In reality, the dueling influence peddlers and public relations operators are only adding to the confusion — when they’re not outright scam artists.

Even before they’d finished toppling Moammar Gadhafi four years ago, the Benghazi-based rebels hired the lobbying group of Patton Boggs and the Harbour Group public relations firm to convince the United States to recognize their interim transitional council as Libya's legitimate government. Since then, they’ve been trying to convince the United States not to throw up its hands as the country has splintered to pieces and fallen prey to Islamic State (IS) wannabes.

Success has been elusive.

The Harbour Group stopped representing Libya in 2013. And Patton Boggs (now Squire Patton Boggs) has just announced that it too had terminated its contract on June 30 — after not reporting any lobbying work on behalf of Libya for the previous six months.

In March, Libya’s tiny embassy in Washington hired PR giant Qorvis/MSLGROUP to create a lobbying and public relations campaign. The contract is worth $1.05 million over 12 months.

“Qorvis MSLGROUP will enhance Libya's, outreach abilities in the media and to thee government,” the contract reads. “We will help ensure Libya's messages reach the White House, the media, think tanks and the Hill. We will open channels of communication through government relations, and organize meetings for Libyan officials.”

Meanwhile, the Bayda-based government’s hawkish ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appears to be running his own show.

Aref Ali Nayed hired Sanitas International in March on behalf of his think tank, the Libya Institute for Advanced Studies. His goal: to convince the United States to lift the international arms embargo on Libya and help kick out the rival Islamist government in Tripoli that Nayed blames for the rise of IS in his country.

“Muslim Brotherhood-associated lobbyists have been pushing this line of ‘two governments that have to discuss things with each other.’ That’s a huge mistake and a betrayal of the values of democracy,” Nayed told Al-Monitor in February.

“The guys in Tripoli are basically a bunch of thugs. They’re not partners in the fight against terrorism; they are precisely part of the problem. They are incubating terrorism and using the democratic system to further their ends.”

Those comments are hard to square with his own government’s participation in peace talks with the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn.

While those negotiations have floundered, UN special envoy Bernardino Leon has made no secret that his plan calls for a unity government between the warring factions. The United States and five European powers have also embraced the idea.

“We strongly urge all participants to the dialogue to negotiate in good faith and use this opportunity to finalize agreements on the formation of a National Unity Government and make arrangements for an unconditional ceasefire,” Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain said in a joint statement on April 12. “Only through compromise can Libya move toward a more secure, stable, and prosperous future.”

The State Department hasn’t been shy about criticizing the UAE’s bombing run against the Tripoli forces.

"We believe outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters following news of the attacks last August, "and undermines Libya’s democratic transition."

The confusion has attracted some questionable characters enticed by the oil-rich country’s wealth.

Last summer, a man claiming to work for a “National Board” set up by the Libyan government to recover billions in assets allegedly looted by Gadhafi and hidden abroad registered his Washington African Consulting Group with the Justice Department in order to get US officials to help him locate the money. After the Daily Beast helped expose him as a brazen fraud, the department removed the questionable filing, without explanation.

The news out of Libya has caused whiplash in Congress, where many question the wisdom of removing Gadhafi without a plan for the aftermath.

Both the House and Senate foreign aid bills for next fiscal year prohibit aid unless the State Department reports that Libya is cooperating with the United States in its “efforts to investigate and bring to justice those responsible” for the attack. Both bills also require the State Department to explain how it will ensure the aid isn’t stolen or misused, while the House version expressly prohibits any funding for a Libyan government that is “controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.”

Adding to lawmakers' discomfort, the ongoing probe into the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens has shed new light into the murky motives of the international coalition. Emails to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from one of her advisers during the campaign appear to reveal a hidden French role in helping set up the rebel alliance in Benghazi in exchange for a cut of future business deals.

In spite of the chaos, the State Department has proposed more than tripling its bilateral aid to Libya in next year’s fiscal year, from $6.2 million last year to $20 million. Half would go to economic support, the other half to military and security assistance.

The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), however, points out that Libya in the past has received support through other avenues, making the numbers potentially misleading.

“The size of the requested increase in bilateral assistance could be misleading if taken at face value, as the majority of assistance to Libya since 2011 has been provided outside of the bilateral account,” says POMED’s report on the FY 2016 budget proposal. “As such, this budget increase represents an effort to begin consolidating assistance into the bilateral account, rather than to dramatically increase overall funding for the country.”

(Public relations image via Shutterstock)

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