Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was a key proponent of military intervention in Libya last March, took something of a victory lap Tuesday with an unannounced trip to Tripoli.
Secretary Clinton arrived to announce a modest increase in US aid, but the primary purpose of her trip appeared to be to reassure Libya’s new leaders – as well as average Libyans – that the US will be a supportive friend through the country’s political transition.
In addition to meeting with senior leaders of Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), Clinton was scheduled to participate in a town-hall-style meeting.
“She’s going to want to talk about … our belief that an expanded, deeper partnership between Libya and the United States, both at the official level and between the Libyan people and the people of the United States, is in the mutual interest of both of our countries, that we can work together to help the Libyans fulfill their goals for themselves, for their country, with full respect for Libya’s sovereignty,” a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton.
The trip makes Clinton the first cabinet-level US official to visit Libya since the fall of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and the first since former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the country in 2008, as part of a normalization of relations between the two countries.
Clinton is part of a parade of mostly Western leaders who have visited Libya in the days following Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron – whose countries carried out the bulk of NATO bombing raids in support Libya’s rebels – made a joint visit on Sept. 15.
All of these visits are couched in terms of support for the country’s political transition and its emergence as a rights-respecting democracy, but at another level the trips are also about jockeying for influence in a major oil-producing nation.
But Clinton was all smiles as she shook hands with an entourage of Libya’s new civilian and military leadership headed by interim leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril.
“Now the hard part begins,” Clinton quipped a she stepped into a closed-door meeting with the TNC leadership.
Clinton brought with her promises of about $11 million in new US aid, according to State Department officials. The bulk of it will go toward boosting efforts to locate and destroy the Qaddafi regime’s substantial stockpiles of conventional weapons, including thousands of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
The US has already sent more than a dozen weapons experts to Libya and will now have contributed about $40 million to the arms-destruction campaign.
Smaller amounts of the money will go toward relaunching education programs, including a Fulbright scholarship award, and additional efforts at encouraging civil society and good governance. Another portion will boost medical assistance for Libya’s estimated 15,000 war wounded.
Clinton’s visit comes as transitional government forces continue to battle Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte, and as the fugitive Qaddafi remains a stumbling block for Libya’s transition.
State Department officials describe Qaddafi as a “lethal nuisance” who remains a challenge for the new leadership and a distraction for some segments of Libyan society. But they insist that a large majority of Libyans have moved on from Qaddafi.
“Qaddafi is the past,” the senior official briefing reporters said. “The people of Libya, by large measure, are already plotting the future without” him.