WASHINGTON -- The U.S. ambassador to Libya Wednesday described a return to normal in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi that included poetry readings, university lectures on constitutional law and uncensored newspapers. At the same time, however, he side-stepped questions about why America hasn’t joined its NATO allies in endorsing the country’s besieged opposition as the legitimate leaders of the country.
"It’s a world you wouldn’t recognize," U.S. envoy Gene Cretz told reporters at a State Department special briefing. "This is not a playful Eden. It is a different kind of environment."
Yet a day after the White House authorized giving the rebels up to $25 million worth of aid in the form of uniforms, protective vests, radios, medical equipment and other “non-lethal” items, the Obama administration made clear it was not ready to give them what they really want: arms and recognition.
The Transitional National Council, or TNC, that has formed in Benghazi, the main city of the country’s eastern region, is “a body worthy of our support,” Cretz said.
He said in three weeks on the ground in the rebel stronghold, U.S. envoy Chris Stevens has gotten to know members of the TNC well. “He reconfirms that this is a serious group,” said Cretz, noting he spoke to the diplomat just an hour before taking the podium. “They continue to say the right thing. They are reaching out to the international community ... and working through the normal bugs” that are to be expected after more than 40 years of dictatorship without a civil society under strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
But Cretz indicated the United States wasn’t ready to follow France, Italy and Qatar in recognizing the TNC as the government of the Libyan people.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called the rebels his “heroes” during a visit to Libya this week, is among those urging the Obama administration to not only recognize the TNC but to give them arms to help break the stalemate they're in with Col. Gaddafi’s forces.
“We continue to look at all the issues with respect to Libya,” Cretz said under sharp questioning from reporters. “It’s a complicated issue. We’re a very legalistic country and we’re looking at all the complexities.”
A European diplomat in Washington, who is not authorized to speak publicly, said that while “it is obvious the TNC will play a central role in any transition in Libya,” more important is the opposition group’s participation in talks in London, Doha and, soon, in Rome. And, he said, the U.S. commitment of $25 million “will reinforce the TNC and we welcome it very much. “
Cretz said that while the United States has “not reached the point” where it is comfortable officially recognizing the Libyan opposition, other countries shouldn’t let the same legalistic restraints stop them. He suggested they follow the U.S. lead and close Gaddafi’s embassies while allowing the TNC to set up an interest section, if not a full-blown embassy.
Despite reports of continuing atrocities by Gaddafi forces in the coastal city of Misrata and against Berber villages in Libya’s remote western mountains, Cretz said progress is being made. He cited NATO’s bombing of the regime’s command and control facilities and its targeting of the dictator's main compound in the capital of Tripoli.
“There is no magic bullet that’s going to convince Gaddafi to stop this,” Cretz said. Still, life has improved -- at least in the rebel-held eastern half of the country. “We’re moving in the right direction. We have the momentum.”
In 2008, Cretz became the first U.S. ambassador to Libya since relations were severed in 1972. He was recalled in January after Wikileaks made public secret embarrassing cables he wrote about Gaddafi, including his reliance on a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse.