ABC News' Kirit Radia (@kiritradia_abc) reports:
Last week at an international conference in Istanbul Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the United States would join 30 other countries in recognizing the Libyan opposition based in Benghazi as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
The move placed the United States squarely behind the Transitional National Council just months after it was reluctant to even meet with them.
“The assurances the TNC offered today reinforce our confidence that it is the appropriate interlocutor for the United States in dealing with Libya’s present and addressing Libya’s future,” she told reporters on Friday. She quickly added, however, that “we still have to work through various legal issues.”
And she’s right about that. As much as the move reassures the Libyan rebels, it raises even more questions than it answers.
This week we asked officials from the State Department, Treasury Department, and TNC what will happen next and consulted some former top officials as well.
Will the United States open an embassy in Benghazi? Will it appoint an ambassador?
In short: no.
“Tripoli is the capital of Libya and we look forward to reopening our embassy there and returning our diplomats there in the future. Ambassador (Gene) Cretz remains the US Ambassador to Libya,” a State Department official tells ABC News.
The TNC appears to be looking for more. A spokesman in Washington says the group is expecting full diplomatic recognition, which would include the opening of an American embassy in Benghazi led by an ambassador.
The United States has maintained a diplomatic office in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold, since early April. Envoy Chris Stevens, who once was the second ranking official at the embassy in Tripoli, has represented U.S. interests there, surrounded by a small team of diplomats and aid experts.
Will the U.S. now allow the Transitional National Council to establish an embassy in Washington?
A spokesman for the TNC in Washington says they are looking to set up a full embassy in DC as soon as possible, but couldn’t say when that might happen. Ali Aujali, who defected as Gadhafi’s ambassador to Washington earlier this year, is the odds-on favorite to resume that title. Aujali and his team are meeting with U.S. officials to discuss this and other issues.
A State Department official wouldn’t answer directly, saying only “We are consulting with the TNC on a broad range of issues including diplomatic ones.”
Will the TNC now get access to the $30+ billion of Gadhafi’s frozen assets?
Yes and no. Yes they will receive part of it, but it is likely to be only a small part. Much of those funds are tied up in investments and only a fraction, perhaps as little as $180 million, is liquid and available. There are legal issues, including U.S. and United Nations sanctions, that still need to be worked around and the Obama administration will likely have to give explicit assurances to financial institutions that they can give this money to the TNC when it had been originally deposited by Gadhafi and his backers.
“When the government says ok take that money and move it to the rebels, I think the financial institutions are going to say wait a minute, how can I be sure that that is the right thing to do legally and they’re going to want some cover,” Stuart Levey told ABC News. Until January Levey was the U.S. point man on sanctions as Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
It’s unclear how quickly money could be dispersed to the TNC, though Levey believes it could happen in weeks. The Treasury Department won’t tip its hand for now.
“There remain legal issues that must be addressed, and in the coming weeks we will consult with the TNC and our international partners on the most effective and appropriate method of making additional significant financial assistance available to the TNC,” a Treasury official writes.
A TNC spokesman in Washington says its officials have been meeting with the Treasury Department to resolve this issue for weeks.
Levey also points out that a mechanism must be established to ensure that the money does not inadvertently flow back to the Gadhafi regime.
The Obama administration had been working with Congress, namely Senator John Kerry (D-MA), to develop legislation that would authorize sending the funds to the TNC. But with the new recognition, Levey believes the money could be transferred under existing executive authorities, bypassing the often cumbersome Congressional process.
Still, questions remain about whether there would be any restrictions on the use of those funds, like on purchasing weapons.
Is the U.S. now more willing to provide military assistance to the rebels?
Nope. “The U.S. has already provided non lethal equipment to the TNC. We currently have no plans to provide lethal assistance,” a State Department official says.
Does this free the Gadhafi regime from international treaty obligations?
In an article this week John Bellinger, a former State Department Legal Adviser under Condoleezza Rice, pointed out that beyond the fine diplomatic lines of “recognizing” the TNC versus deciding to “deal with” them, there are serious questions about what they are now obligated to do. And perhaps even more importantly, what the Gadhafi regime is still bound to do.
“Recognition of the [TNC] while the Gadhafi regime still controls extensive territory and exercises some governmental functions also raises other legal and practical problems, such as which group bears the responsibility for Libya's treaty obligations,” Bellinger wrote in a piece published by the Council on Foreign Relations where he is now a senior adjunct fellow.
One of the most important treaty requirements, Bellinger points out, would be to allow consular access to detained Americans in territory he controls.
In response a TNC spokesman in Washington told ABC News they are prepared to honor all international treaties. The U.S. says it expects Gadhafi’s government to do the same.
“We expect the Gadhafi regime to continue to abide by its international obligations in the territory within its control,” a State Department official says.
Across the board, officials from the United States and the Transitional National Council say it is still early and many of these issues remain a subject of internal discussion and negotiation between the two sides.
As Bellinger wrote, “No doubt these are among the "various legal issues" that Secretary Clinton says the State Department is working through.”