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Biden admin 'actively' working to reopen US Embassy in Libya

The US has lacked a permanent diplomatic mission in Libya since heavy fighting forced American diplomats to withdraw in 2014.
Libya embassy

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is actively working to reestablish a diplomatic presence in Libya, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators 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 the budding Libyan civil war. Today, US diplomats assigned to Libya are based out of the Libya External Office in the compound of the US Embassy in Tunis.  

Blinken declined to give a timetable for when the embassy might reopen but told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that the administration was pursuing it. 

“This is something we're very actively working on," Blinken said. "I want to see us be able to reestablish an ongoing presence in Libya." 

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

A senior US official previously told Al-Monitor that the administration is “looking internally and as appropriate consulting with the Congress" about steps toward reopening. The official also hinted at “more regular and more senior travel” to Libya as security conditions allow.   

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 presidency council, Mohammed al-Menfi. Leaf’s trip follows a visit from CIA director Bill Burns in January. 

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed concern over the remote diplomacy in Wednesday’s hearing, telling Blinken that without a permanent US presence in Libya, “we're going to have a hard time protecting our equities and a lot of taxpayer dollars that have been spent there.” 

Murphy noted that several countries have reopened their embassies in the war-ravaged country, including Italy in 2017, France in 2021 and the United Kingdom in 2022. But returning diplomatic staff to Libya is less politically risky for the Europeans. 

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

“If there were to be another attack on our embassy, then there'll be a lot of finger-pointing and blaming," said Tom Hill, a North Africa expert at the US Institute of Peace. "Congress didn't want to be the ones to have 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 intends to resume diplomatic operations in Libya “as soon as the conditions permit," adding that the process "entails careful logistical and security planning plus interagency coordination to meet security and legal requirements."

Talk of reopening the embassy comes as the civil war has wound down, 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 to hold presidential and legislative elections by the end of 2023. 

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

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

“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 Tunis or Malta,” Fishman said. “But re-establishing a presence is far harder than taking it out — especially after the political firestorm that was Benghazi.” 

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