by Robert Earle
In early May my friend Blakely said that he had been contacted by a third party representing Moammar Gaddafi’s most influential son, Saif al-Islam.
Saif al-Islam wanted to convey a message to Washington through unofficial channels, and the third party knew Blakely was acquainted with Vice President Biden.
“I said I was interested, but these things go better when you have a partner. Want to get involved?”
Blakely clearly thought the project was a little cockamamie, but his motto is, “This could lead to things.” Sometimes that’s true. So I said I’d go, though not to Libya itself. Blakely agreed.
The third party consisted of Turks but not official Turks. For the next few weeks, messages went back and forth between us in Washington, the Turks in Istanbul, and the Gaddafi circle in Tripoli. But were the Turks really in touch with Saif-al Islam? We were told a preparatory meeting would take place in Istanbul; then it was postponed; then it seemed to have occurred in Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi clearly was losing the war, and I thought the son was looking for a way to sell his father out. Saif al-Islam had a degree from the London School of Economics. He controlled the family’s fortune. Beyond that, sons have toppled fathers for several thousand years in the Middle East—and not just in the Middle East.
Of course I didn’t see myself helping Saif al-Islam. My reasoning was more fundamental. In Iraq I saw the horrific casualties, the unimaginable military expenditures, the wasted aid dollars, the misery, physical destruction and social disruption, all based on an inaccurate premise. That reaffirmed my judgment since Vietnam that little beyond deterrence and direct self-defense makes sense. Too few Americans have more than a media notion about war. Ever since we stopped the draft, our military has become detached from our society. Obama wisely kept his distance from Libya. Letting France and the U.K. take the lead in NATO operations conformed to what the U.S. had been calling for over decades—burden sharing—but NATO is lame and blind without the U.S. Inevitably the U.S. had to be somewhat involved and could always tip the scales. Political scientist John Mearsheimer calls this “offshore balancing,” meaning few, if any, boots on the ground.
On May 28 Blakely and I flew through Frankfurt to Tunis. We were met by the Turks, who had business interests being foiled by the civil war. They had worked hard to make this meeting occur. Good guys motivated by self-interest. Fine with me.
Before leaving Washington, Blakely and I agreed it would be a bad idea to tell the government what we were doing. We had been in government for decades and could imagine every condition that would be imposed on us. Instead, we settled on Blakely calling the Vice President’s office and leaving word that we might soon have something to discuss regarding Libya. Blakely didn’t receive a call back before we departed.
The surprise was that both Saif al-Islam and Colonel Gaddafi would be represented, meaning my hypothesis was probably wrong. Saif al-Islam wasn’t throwing his father under the bus.
Tunis, which I had last visited in 1996, looked much the same despite the recent revolution, igniting the Arab Spring. The principal changes were barbed wire around a few government buildings and some tanks and personnel carriers here and there. Tunis is an agreeable, sea-bleached coastal metropolis that has spread for many miles around its historic core. Not wealthy or flashy but not poor—a middle-class third world country. I sensed no tension. Ben Ali, the former dictator, and his cronies were out. The somewhat tatty Sheraton was functioning quite normally, except for a scarcity of guests. Revolutions aren’t good for tourism.
A Libyan in his sixties met us. Adib spoke English fluently with a slight Irish brogue. He had two big young fellows with him. They didn’t speak English at all but they smiled happily at us. Adib said that the Sheraton wasn’t acceptable to the other Libyan we would meet, a man named Mohammed. There were people at the Sheraton who would recognize Mohammed. We’d have to take a taxi elsewhere.
Blakely and I didn’t like this because we didn’t know where “elsewhere” might be, but Adib was cheerful and our Turkish friends were relaxed, so we drove across Tunis past Carthage, which I had read about as a boy in Livy’s account of the Punic Wars, to a beautiful, empty resort called The Residence, notable for its understated Moorish elegance and long vistas down endless corridors and out into the extraordinary garden and swimming pool.
Instead of going into the garden, which attracted us to the point that Blakely suggested we change our reservations and stay at the Residence, we were led down those long corridors, deep into the hotel, until we came to a windowless executive meeting room with a sarcophagus-sized burled walnut table and extravagantly padded leather chairs.
Along the way the Turks dropped out. They didn’t want to impede what might be said; in addition, they had tens of millions locked up in frozen projects and were smart enough to leave it to someone else to unravel a knot that had little to do with business.
Adib said Mohammed would be with us momentarily. I asked him about his fluent English. He said he acquired it in Dublin where he had studied Irish literature. We began talking about Joyce. Then we talked about Yeats. I mentioned “Easter, 1916,” the poem about Ireland’s failed upraising against the British. Adib got the joke. He quoted a few lines:
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Mordant but witty—more like Joyce, in fact, than Yeats.
Mohammed arrived, wearing a white shirt open at the collar, a well-tailored sport coat, and blue jeans. He spoke idiomatic American English, appeared about forty, and looked more fatigued than the older Adib. Harried, actually, but handsome. Think Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago. He clearly was the more influential interlocutor.
“Well, what do you have to say to us?” he asked.
Blakely pleasantly said we had nothing to say to them. He never stares anyone down or tightens up or rushes things. He explained he was the man with the contacts of interest to the Libyan side and I was a former diplomat, with contacts, too, so we had come to this meeting to receive a message that could be conveyed to the highest levels. “We’re here to listen.”
Mohammed unfolded a piece of paper that he kept on the table before him, but he seldom consulted his notes as he spoke.
He began by calling the conflict in Libya stupid and unnecessary. He said he was in touch with the rebel leaders and that the “Leader” (as he referred to Gaddafi) had offered the rebel leader, Mustafa Jalil, the prime minister’s post on February 2, along with six or seven other ministerial posts.
“We were promising freedom of the press, a new penal code…but then two weeks later the fighting broke out.”
For the next ten minutes he outlined the Leader’s desire to put an end to this fighting. He said Gaddafi was prepared to step aside, appoint a mixed technocratic/rebel government, call for a ceasefire to be monitored by the UN and the African Union, arrange for a national dialogue and constitutional convention in which neither Gaddafi nor any of his relatives or associates would play a role, and then retire from politics as the next leader of the people was elected. The ceasefire would be difficult to enforce because the rebels were factionalized, but the Leader could make it happen on his side.
Mohammed had only one red line: The Leader would not leave Libya.
At the time, we were a few weeks away from the French and British suggesting Gaddafi could remain in Libya, and I knew Washington wouldn’t like this idea. There was no point in debating, however. We were there to receive a message. This was the message. Diplomatic exchanges never end where they begin.
“What about his family’s future—his sons’?” we asked, wanting to elicit something about Saif al-Islam in particular.
Mohammed said they would sit out the political process and then, if the people summoned them, they would serve like any other Libyan, no more, no less. “It will all be up to the people.”
Blakely asked, “Wouldn’t an election to choose constitutional convention delegates make sense?”
“There aren’t any political parties to pull that off. We have the council of tribes. Then there are the rebels, and our assembly, and so forth. That’s how we would organize the constitutional convention.” Mohammed added that international experts would be included. He mentioned two noted foreign affairs and constitutional scholars, Joseph Nye and Benjamin Barber, with whom he had had contact.
This was quite a proposal—Gaddafi announcing his departure from power and turning things over to a process the international community could stabilize non-violently. I thought it could lead to an endgame for the conflict in Libya, but I had some questions and observations. Here we were in a posh resort talking to two extremely well-spoken, sophisticated men and the Turks had never told us who they were—just “people from Gaddafi and Saif’s inner circle.”
“Don’t take offense to anything I say, but first, who exactly are you?”
“You don’t know?” Mohammed asked. “Don’t you have a dossier on me?”
“Please, just put it in your own words.”
Adib said, “I have assisted the Leader for thirty-five years in various ways. I receive nothing for my government activities and make a living elsewhere.”
“So you’re close to him?”
Adib said that was a fair description.
Mohammed said he had worked as Saif al-Islam’s principal assistant since 1997 and spoke for him. When we asked, he said that he learned to speak such idiomatic English at the American School in Kabul in the 1970s.
I then asked them again not to be offended but, “Why should the United States believe the Leader will do what you say he will do?”
Adib took the lead, brisk but not hostile. “1) We put an end to the Lockerbie issue. 2) We ended our nuclear program. 3) For several years now we have been one of the best allies the United States intelligence agencies have had in the war on terror.”
Good answers. The Libya of the 2000s was not the Libya of the 1980s. There was an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Libya called the Libyan Fighting Force, and Libya had been a point of origin for many of the suicide bombers in Iraq. Gaddafi wanted to extirpate this group. He’d been an ally of necessity and convenience in the Bush War on Terror. That carried over to Obama.
Mohammed added, “Look, we can work with these rebels. They can participate in an interim administration with the technocrats and help put the country back on its feet—hospitals, roads, oil.”
“And we’ll point out to you which elements of Islamic radicals are active in the rebel camp so you can monitor them,” Adib added. He mentioned the 17th of February Brigade and a place called the 7th of April Camp. “They’re bringing in weapons, not us. We’re being bombed by NATO.” He cited rebel contacts with Hamas and Hezbollah, a ship full of weapons captained by a Canadian that NATO let reach the rebels, and another ship with forty-five al Qaeda militants on board that also reached the rebels. “We’ve given the CIA a CD with all this information. Unfortunately all this is contrary to what your ambassador reported to Washington. We worked hard to educate him; we introduced him to people; we spoke with him and explained things; but we read in Wikileaks that he didn’t understand a thing.”
“We don’t want him to be a part of this discussion we’re having,” Mohammed said. “Look, we will grant amnesty to everyone who has taken up arms. The time has come to stop the fighting.”
I said, “Would the Leader repeat everything you’ve told us before television cameras and commit to it before the world?”
Mohammed said, “Our prime minister has already said all this. Who’s listening?”
Blakely said, “It would be different if the Leader spoke.”
“It has been said,” Mohammed insisted.
“Of course, the Leader wouldn’t say these things without some indication Washington would welcome them,” I said. “I suppose you hope your private message would trigger that.”
“Correct,” Mohammed said. “But frankly, I don’t see the need for him to make these statements. He’s tired of politics. He wants to step aside.”
Blakely said, “He might be able to do that better if he followed George Washington’s example and made himself explicit. His farewell address is a big reason Washington is such a pillar of our democracy.”
Mohammed could see we weren’t going to let this go. We had not pre-agreed this strategy, but we both knew there had to be a public speech nailing Gaddafi to his mast.
“Let’s say we don’t rule it out,” Mohammed said.
I said, “Okay, then. Let me ask you another question: What do you want from the United States? It hasn’t been in the lead. Obama has tried to avoid that.”
Mohammed said, “Washington is the only one who can call the French and British off. And Washington is the only one that can make a difference in the UN Security Council.”
Blakely and I were thinking the same thing. We couldn’t go back and tell the Vice President that such-and-such had been said and expect wheels to start turning. It could still be a maneuver to give Gaddafi to time to regroup and resume his counterattack. We had to pin this offer down. Even if it were sincere, Washington would have a lot of work to do with NATO, the French and the British. Washington would be told it was foolish to deal with Gaddafi and ought to keep fighting until he was dead and gone. My view, again, is that anything that stops a day of conflict is a good day: fewer deaths, less suffering, a chance to take on very difficult tasks of reconciliation and reconstruction.
I repeated the terms that had been presented—emphasizing that Gaddafi and his sons and associates would step aside completely—and then asked if the Libyan side would agree to provide a non-paper blessed in Tripoli that we could take to Washington. I began to dictate what the non-paper would sound like, using the first person as if I were Gaddafi himself: Gaddafi could say he had done his best as leader and was now ready to step aside. He could call for a ceasefire, amnesty, a constitutional process and election under international supervision without his interference. His statement would be his final act as Libya’s leader.
As I spoke, Mohammed and Adib exchanged glances that suggested they liked what they heard; it was exactly what they had in mind.
“But the red line?” Mohammed asked.
“We’re not in a position to comment on that,” Blakely said.
“What about the indictment that’s been issued at the International Criminal Court?”
I said, “The United States has influence in NATO and the Security Council, but the International Criminal Court is a different matter. We have our problems with it.”
“Look, I have to fly to Norway tonight,” Mohammed said, “but I will consult with Tripoli and come back here and meet with you tomorrow.”
“In the meantime, I’ll take you out to dinner,” Adib said.
We said sure, just give us a few hours to sleep.
We drove back to the Sheraton and briefed the Turks on what had happened. They had been working in Libya for years and were encouraged. I thought two things: a) I had better write a memorandum on what had been said, and b) I should write the non-paper for the Libyans to show Tripoli and then send us so that we could take it to the Vice President. Why? Both to get the terms stated exactly as we understood them and also to ensure something was written. There are two constants in diplomacy: no one remembers what was said the same way and no one likes to write. So be the drafter who records what was said and save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.
“You do that,” Blakely said. “I’m crashing.”
Later that evening Adib took us to dinner at a restaurant on the corniche with a spectacular view of the Bay of Tunis and endless quantities of good wine and seafood. We talked about the fact that many Libyans were Berbers, not Arabs. We talked about Yeats and Joyce and Seamus Heaney. We talked about the large crowd of sophisticated Tunisians at the restaurant with us—peaceful, stylish, quite pleased with themselves and deservedly so. So far I had not encountered a hint of the hatred I’d seen in many Iraqi eyes, nor had I seen any women concealed by veils. Tunisia had been relatively secularized under Ben Ali. With my memorandum of our conversation written, I relaxed and enjoyed myself. If I were told I’d have to spend the rest of my life in Tunis, that would be fine with me. With all its oil, Libya might become just as agreeable. It had beautiful views of Mediterranean waters, too. Who knew? As a pragmatist, I think there are many paths to many solutions.
The idea that Mohammed would fly from Tunis to Norway and back overnight was confirmation that he had high status, conforming to his self-confident manner. Taking liberties with Gaddafi’s power and prerogatives in the past had led to death, so Mohammed and Adib had to have at least Saif al-Islam’s backing. Think of what they were saying: Gaddafi would step down once and for all. The rebels would be granted amnesty and power. International intrusion into Libya’s affairs would be extensive. I knew this would be a messy and protracted and sometimes violent transition, and I could see an insurgency develop and two Libyas emerge, one east and one west. Establishing peace, order, and the rule of law in the Balkans was difficult and ongoing, the same in Iraq. Tunisia seemed to be doing okay, but Gaddafi had forestalled politics in Libya. He was a socialist anarchist, artful in the ways of tribes. Libya was not a nation state; it was a shape-shifting entity as peculiar as Gaddafi’s odd manner of dressing one way to affiliate himself with a certain group one day and another way the next day—or two ways at once…or three. His body was Libya. War and killing him wouldn’t be the hard part in putting Libya right; peace would be the hard part.
Mohammed kept not returning from Norway. In the morning he didn’t return, in the afternoon he did not return, and in the evening he did not return. I used the morning to write the non-paper—Gaddafi’s farewell to Libya and the world—and included a phrase, “as my final act…” that caused trouble down the road.
In the afternoon, Blakely, the Turks and I went to the souk, which was semi-shuttered, and then strolled down a wide boulevard past some tanks to a café with a beautiful, weather-beaten orange awning. More attractive young Tunisians along with families and children, too. The weather was splendid, but a strong wind rippled the awning like a ship’s sail. From time to time we stopped eating and looked up, wondering if we should go inside, but the awning held.
Back at the hotel, we rested. The Turks were in charge of communicating with the Libyans. Dinner time came. No Mohammed. The Turks took us to another splendid restaurant along the water, but this one far out of town. They ordered so much food that we had a table where we could eat and a separate table, of equal size, to hold the food. Lobster, squid, fish, olives, fresh bread and splendid pastes, salads, wine, pastries, cognac.
The restaurant would hold at least 400 people. From its veranda you could stare at the beautifully lit city across the water. We were the only guests.
Blakely said, “Well, we’re leaving tomorrow at midday, so what do you think, guys, is Mohammed coming back?”
The principal Turk was in constant touch with Adib by cellphone and promised that Mohammed was coming back. “But it might be tomorrow morning. We might have to meet in the Sheraton to save time.”
Here is the thing: Two of the Turks had degrees from U.S. universities. The third never spoke, so I have no idea who he was other than a factotum for the principal Turk, who was a very nice guy in his thirties anxious to get back to work in a Libya where his employees wouldn’t be shot and his supplies wouldn’t be pilfered and his bank accounts wouldn’t be frozen. The second Turk was the son of a Turk back in Istanbul. He was a soft-spoken fellow who had to keep telling us that we should be paid money for what we were doing because that’s what his father wanted. He didn’t like telling us this because he could see what we all could see: the issue wasn’t money, the issue was death, bombing, houses in rubble, a mad dictator on his last legs who, the Turks understood, was a drug abuser if not a drug addict.
“We’re not even going to talk about money, okay?” Blakely said.
I said, “I don’t want to be associated with it.”
“If some business develops later…”
“Right,” I said. “Later.”
Blakely is one of the world’s natural networkers. One night in Amman he had dinner with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two staffers. He and Biden swapped stories for two hours. Capitol Hill stories. Campaign and political history stories. On and on. Lots of laughter. The relieved staffers, who had been worried they’d find no one for the garrulous Biden to gab with, stopped Blakely at the elevator afterward and said, “After that, you can be confirmed for any position you want.” That’s why we thought we could get Biden’s attention and protect the Libyan offer from bureaucratic death in “inter-agency Washington.”
We went back to the Sheraton and met with Adib. He said we were being watched, so we’d better go out onto the patio. We went out onto the patio and were still being watched but that wind kept blowing, so the obtrusive spy, though he kept standing ten feet from us, couldn’t hear us say that if Mohammed didn’t return in the morning, the deal was off, but if he did return, we’d give him a non-paper he could use with Tripoli.
As I walked back to the elevator bank, I noticed a blonde prostitute eyeing me. The Sheraton isn’t really the right place for that to happen. It’s a good, if older, hotel. So here was another plant. The next morning Blakely said she’d given him the same look.
“Kinda pudgy, though,” he said.
“That’s what I thought.”
We breakfasted with Adib and one of his smiling sidekicks. Adib said Mohammed would arrive momentarily, back from Norway. How did he move around so quickly with Libyan air space shut down? Simple. There was an island off the coast of Tunis one could drive to from Tripoli and it had an airstrip. Up, up and away. That’s how Adib flew to Tunis himself.
Mohammed arrived and we went into a less fancy windowless meeting room. He looked worse for wear.
“This is a non-paper you could try in Tripoli,” I said. “Amend it or do whatever you want, but then fax us something and we’ll get it to the Vice President.”
I pushed a piece of paper across the table. Mohammed and Adib read it at the same time.
“Did I get everything you said the way you said it?” I asked.
They looked at one another and then looked at me. Mohammed said, “Yes, this is very useful. Thank you.”
“You can always reach us through our Turkish friends,” Blakely said.
“We appreciate their interest, and yours, too,” Mohammed said.
There was little more to say and we had a plane to catch. Handshakes and so forth. Blakely and I flew back to Washington.
A few days passed. No non-paper from Tripoli. Istanbul told us the draft was on the Leader’s desk. More days. Istanbul told us that a question had been raised about “as my final act.” Blakely sent word back that it was their paper, not ours. Strike the phrase. Just send us something that conformed to what we had been told. I added that it should not be in Arabic that could be read to mean anything—Arabic is a very good language for ambiguity, one of the best.
As June passed, the fighting in Libya continued, and it didn’t favor Gaddafi, but the news only tells you what reporters are able to cover. A great deal happens in a war that they cannot report. Names of towns—Misurata, Sirte—that were unknown to Americans before became known. Then there were comical stories showing rebels charging up roads along the coast and charging right back and rebels taking sandy hills in the west and abandoning them just as fast.
The “fog of war” may not be the best term; the “uncertainty of war” might be better. There is little you can do about fog; but uncertainty is an element you can address, though it’s hard when people are trying to kill you and often succeeding.
No fax. Word from Istanbul…it’s coming, it’s coming.
After two weeks, I began to think that Gaddafi had looked at what had been recorded in my non-paper and said to Saif al-Islam, who had become a madman himself on TV, “No, I’m not doing this.” Or, “Let me think about it.” Or, he’d said nothing because he couldn’t think because he couldn’t sleep and he was pumped up with drugs to slow him down and speed him up and ease his pains and make him resigned to the fact that what would happen would happen, que será, será.
Every morning I wake up around six and check my computer. On June 28 Blakely had sent me an e-mail at 4:09 a.m. saying two things: 1) he was going to the hospital for an immediate bypass operation and 2) the fax was in Istanbul and would reach me in an hour or two.
The fax arrived and it contained the non-paper, but it wasn’t my non-paper. It was terrible, a harangue about the NATO bombing, which should stop, and arms shipments to the rebels, which should stop, and international support for the Libyan government’s efforts to restore peace and order to Libya.
I read it several times, imagining the decisive moment when Gaddafi said no. I pictured two or three people in the room with him—Saif al-Islam, Adib, and possibly Mohammed. That’s how these things happen. Whether it was medication or madness or both, Gaddafi chose to fight on and eventually, inevitably, die a wretched death. I had sent word to Istanbul several times in recent days that Saif al-Islam had to push his father hard. Istanbul said no one could do that. The old man wouldn’t listen. Istanbul apparently was right.
Now… what to do with this rotten message? I couldn’t send it to the Vice President; it wasn’t worth his attention. So I used some contacts in the State Department and received, predictably, the comment that this was nothing new and would not receive a reply.
I explained this to Istanbul and Istanbul apologized for putting me in the position of receiving such a dismal rant. Istanbul then told Tripoli whatever it told Tripoli, but it can’t have surprised Tripoli—Gaddafi, maybe, but not the others. The others knew the Gaddafi regime was over in May. That’s why we met in Tunis. They were trying to surrender. But not Gaddafi.
I have been in situations before where I conveyed bad news to national leaders and was brushed aside. Bad news doesn’t travel fast at the top; it travels at a snail’s pace. Leaders stop it by staring at it, keeping it at a distance, warning it and its bearers to go away. George W. Bush did this repeatedly in Iraq. Lyndon Johnson did the same in Vietnam.
Blakely came through a quadruple by-pass just fine. On a sweltering hot day in August, he and I met with our principal Turk in Washington. The Turk told us he’d heard Gaddafi was worse than ever…more drugs and disorientation. Blakely happened to have on his computer a photograph that has not, to my knowledge, made the media. It shows the instant Saddam Hussein poked his head up out of his hole in the ground. Recently we saw photos of Gaddafi’s final moments. The expressions on the two dictators face’s were not dissimilar. They were beaten, haggard old men who had played their last card. The game was over. Now they would say they were still president of Iraq or father of all Libya, but no one would believe them, and they would die. The only tragedy in either case was that so many had to die before they did.