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Clashes In Libya--What Is Next?

Speaker: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, Council On Foreign Relations (CFR)
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Cfr.Org, Council On Foreign Relations
February 22, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  Thank you for your patience in holding.  We now have our speakers in conference.  (Gives queuing instructions.)

I would now like to turn the conference over to Bernard Gwertzman.  Sir, you may begin.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN:  Greetings.  I'm glad that all of you are on.  I'm happy to introduce Elliott Abrams, who is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elliott and I go back a long time.  I first met him during the Reagan administration, when he was an assistant secretary for Latin American affairs --

ELLIOTT ABRAMS:  No, no, first it was human rights.

GWERTZMAN:  Oh, first human rights.  Okay.

ABRAMS:  First, human rights in Romania.  That's when you and I first met.

GWERTZMAN:  Oh, my.  Okay.  (Laughs.)  And then Latin America.  And he's had many, many jobs, including in the recent Bush administration.  He was a national security adviser on Middle Eastern affairs.

So, Elliott, what do you -- what's your feeling now?  Is the Gadhafi regime about to collapse, or has he got enough fire power to stay in the office that he's had for all these last 42 years?

ABRAMS:  Judging from what I see in the press -- British, French, American -- I'd be very surprised if the regime can maintain itself in power, if Gadhafi can stay in power.  He's got one thing now, which is a part of the army.

This is not a situation, by the way, like Egypt, where there is a thing called the army and it's an institution that goes back a very long way and it has a fair amount of unity and command-and-control structures.  The army has been disorganized in Libya for a long time, I think partially because Gadhafi came to power in a coup and doesn't want the coup to repeat itself against him.  So the army is already weak, and the army is already split along geographical and tribal lines.

He's holding on through threats and brute force.  And his speech today was really quite bloody in its -- in its threats.  When you get to that point, it seems to me, it's very unlikely that you can retain power.

GWERTZMAN:  And let's discuss a bit of the background here.  Now, Libya has oil, and it has a relatively small population.  So the relative population wealth is much higher than any other country, I think, in Africa, pretty much, and --

ABRAMS:  Well, yes, it's one of the highest, because it's only got about 6-1/2 million people.  The reserves are over $100 billion, and it is wealthy per capita, but of course the money does not get through to most of the population.  The unemployment rate is estimated at around 30 percent.  It's about $14,000 per capita, but of course that doesn't -- income -- but that doesn't get to most of the population.

GWERTZMAN:  Ah-ha.  So this is sort of like Egypt -- in effect, lots of unemployed, disaffected people?

ABRAMS:  It's worse in one way.  Every Egyptian knows that they don't live in a vastly wealthy country.  But Libyans know they do live in a wealthy country.  They know that that money is some place.  They know that there's a tremendous amount of oil and gas going out.  Depending on who you ask, something like -- well, certainly between a million and a half and two million barrels a day.  They have the ninth-largest oil reserves in the world.  So if you're a poor Libyan, you've got to be asking the question, where does it all go, and how come I don't get any?

GWERTZMAN:  Well, is Gadhafi himself a man of wealth, or who's got the money?

ABRAMS:  Well, some of it is in the national reserve, that 100 billion or more dollars.  I've not seen much speculation about Gadhafi family wealth.  And Gadhafi himself is -- unlike Ben Ali, is not someone who, you know, is mostly concerned with living the high life.  He has camped out in tents when he has visited Europe and other places around the world.  I would assume that among them, his sons have a fair amount of money by this time, but that is speculation.

GWERTZMAN:  One more area I'd like to get into before we throw it open to questions from our audience.  Out of the blue almost, in 2003, the United States restored relations with Libya that had been severely damaged due to Libyan terrorism, including the bombing of that Pan Am plane over Britain and other acts of terrorism.

ABRAMS:  Right.  There was the La Belle discotheque in Berlin.

GWERTZMAN:  Right. 

How did all that come about?  How did these -- all of a sudden this improvement in relations?

ABRAMS:  After the very quick American takedown of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of interference with some of Gadhafi's arms supplies, he approached British intelligence, and the British, from intelligence channels, approached us.  And the negotiations were conducted in intel channels. 

And the price that we exacted for changing the nature of the relationship was that Gadhafi abandon terrorism and that he abandon his nuclear and missile programs and give them to us.  And I would say that in the -- in the ensuing years, he has abandoned terrorism.  That is, since he -- this was December 2003.  So since 2004, I'm unaware of any evidence of Libyan involvement in terrorism.

And he did, in fact, hand over the nuclear and missile materials, and they reside at a U.S. military base, I mean, in the continental United States.  So from that point of view, he met his part of the bargain.  And I would have to add, I'm -- you know, I'm glad, from this vantage point, that we did that, because the situation in Libya would be even more complicated if Gadhafi still had control of the nuclear and missile programs.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  We're ready to open it up to questions.

OPERATOR:  At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  (Gives queuing instructions.) 

Our first question comes from Mary Beth Sheridan with the Washington Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thank you both so much for doing this.  I had a question for Mr. Abrams. 

What do you think the U.S. government can do to, you know, discourage or limit the terrible, you know, violence on the part of the Libyan government at this point?

ABRAMS:  Right.  I guess the one-word answer would be "more."  It -- I cannot see that we have done anything.  We've issued one statement, a statement by the secretary of state yesterday, that condemned the violence.  It did not condemn the government of Libya.  It did not condemn Gadhafi.  So the first thing I think we should do is to speak more forthrightly about this.  And I hope that we would start doing that. 

Secondly, there were some consultations at the U.N., but I don't see why we don't have a Security Council session that addresses this.  The Arab League has suspended Libya as of today.  And you've seen the defections of Libyan officials, including today their ambassador to the U.S. 

But there are some other things we could do.  Why don't we move for them to be suspended or rejected from the U.N. Human Rights Council?  Why don't we act right now to freeze all Libyan accounts so that that they can't be raided by the Gadhafi family?  Could we try to get everyone to agree to an arms embargo in case the regime is trying to import some more arms to use against the population?  Humanitarian aid, which could be provided through Egypt or through Tunisia, for example -- have we done everything we could through U.N. agencies, the World Food Program and so forth to provide humanitarian aid?

You then get to the question of -- that some people have proposed, which is a no-fly zone; that is, that the United States should propose either with the EU or NATO or the Security Council that force be used to prevent Libya's air force from bombing its own population. 

I don't see any reason for us not to begin that discussion.  It would take some time, anyway, to get that discussion going in NATO and with the EU and in the U.N., and you may run into Russia and Chinese vetoes.  But the discussion itself would show how much we are concerned about this use of violence against the population.

The other thing that I think we should do -- and this is something that the administration may have done -- I think we should deliver a message to people like Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister and longtime intelligence chief, that if any Americans are hurt by those military forces of Gadhafi's, there will be hell to pay, including by him personally.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jonathan Broder with Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, yes, and my -- also my thanks for doing this.  My understanding is that the United States gives about $2 million in aid to Libya, mostly to help it with its disarmament.  And I'm wondering whether you're aware of any outstanding disarmament that still needs to be done.

ABRAMS:  Hmm.  I'm not.  We did have to, you know, help them ship all that stuff out -- and we did that -- and take apart a variety of programs that they had.  My impression was that that had already been completed.  Sometimes very small amounts of aid are really given in order to let a country become eligible for IMET or for foreign military sales, which could be the case here.  But I'm not really sure of what that $2 million goes for.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Thank you very much.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Next?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Barry Schweid, Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Hi there.  I'm wondering if you could just step back a minute and ask if you don't find the general trend in Libya satisfying after decades of dissatisfaction.  And I'm not sure how many countries the administration can get involved with, meddle in, actually, and tell it how to run its government.  In awful countries, of course, but is Libya -- is Libya now in that group of terribly repressive governments?  Or is it on the road to improvement, although not perfect?

ABRAMS:  Well, I would say that Libya was not on the road to improvement.  That is, if you look at Libya 20 years ago, 10 years ago, today, exactly the same system of government, I'd say, which is Gadhafi and his sons run everything, (sons ?) come in and out of favor and rise and fall in some periods, but Gadhafi and his closest advisers are the same people who were there 10 years ago.  So I see no reform.

In fact, it was striking to me that the son who is most associated with reform, Saif al-Islam, was the one who first went on TV and told everybody to shut up and go home, thereby, I think, putting an end to any notion that he was a serious reformer who might be able to lead after his father's departure.  So I don't see any reform and any progress in Libya at all.

Of course the question arises, as you know, why do we care about this?  But I think that question could be asked more -- if you want to -- if you want to -- if you want to be very unprincipled about this, you could ask it about Tunisia, which is, after all, a very small country, a very small population, not much in the way of resources.  You cannot ask that question about Libya, ninth-largest oil reserves in the world and an important oil supplier for many European countries, and a country whose impact on the oil markets we're all seeing today, highest price in three years.

So Libya has some importance.  It's also a government that's been one of the worst outlaw governments over these four decades in the world and one of the worst state sponsors of terrorism and has a fair amount of American -- Gadhafi has a fair amount of American blood on his hands, from Pan Am 103, from La Belle discotheque and other incidents.

So it seems to me that we should be concerned about Libya.  And it seems to me that there's -- you know, there's another question, which is, what are we prepared to see without trying to do anything about it?  That is, suppose this goes on; suppose he kills a thousand people today and 5,000 next week.  Are we going to take the same position that, you know, we'll make a speech denouncing it, but we won't actually do anything?  When do you cross the threshold?

QUESTIONER:  Do we need to worry about the oil?

ABRAMS:  Well, you know, the oil -- I mean, it's a small percentage of the -- of the oil that moves in the world each day.  We need to worry about it for the reasons that we see; that is, a spike in oil prices, because traders get nervous.

I would think it would be useful -- unless this ends very quickly, like today or tomorrow, which doesn't seem likely -- I would think it would be useful for the International Energy Agency to call some kind of meeting at which a variety of countries pledge that they will be willing to open up their national reserves, at which maybe the Saudis pledge that they're willing to increase production, to try to calm the markets down.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from James Kitfield, National Journal Magazine.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I appreciate you guys doing this.  Elliott, talk to me for a second about how, if you're sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and you're Netanyahu, how you view all of these insurrections all around you, how it affects your strategic calculus on either the peace process, relationships with the U.S., et cetera.

ABRAMS:  I think your main concern is with the moderate axis, as we've called it, which was essentially Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with which Israel has peace treaties, and then other countries that Condi Rice used to call "responsible governments."  That was a reference to the Saudis, the Emiratis.

And I think your greatest concern if you're sitting in Israel is that that moderate axis not start disappearing.  And that's why they're worried so much about politics in Egypt and worried, for example, what if you had a new government of Egypt and it renounced the peace treaty?  That would leave the Jordanians all alone.  Would they then renounce the peace treaty?  What would the pressures be there?

So they're very -- they're very worried about all of this.  And they're further worried that a more democratic Egypt, in particular, will be a less friendly Egypt to them, that they'll be kind of, you know, populist politics appealing to the lowest common denominator and a lot of rabble rousing about relations with Israel.

They would be less concerned the further you get away.  I mean, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain would not concern them nearly as much.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

GWERTZMAN:  Next.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Paul Eckert with Reuters.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, thank you for doing this.  You did mention oil and already its impact on prices around the world.  What do you make of calls for an embargo of Libyan oil?  Would that do any good?  Would it just cause pain around the world and not achieve its target?

ABRAMS:  Well, it's an interesting question.  And I'm not, obviously, an oil trader.  If you -- you've already had an impact on oil prices on the speculation that maybe the supply would be interfered with.  It's a good question, it seems to me, if you organized this so that you had some pledges from OPEC -- in fact, there has been a statement from OPEC, I believe, to the effect that they would be willing in general to increase supply or to make sure that supply was stable.  Suppose you formalized that a little bit and got country-by-country pledges to increase production and some pledges to open the strategic petroleum reserves if necessary so that you were really guaranteeing the amount of oil on the market and then cut off Libyan exports.

Wouldn't markets continue to spike?  Or would they actually view that as a -- an assertion of management over oil supplies and oil markets?  I don't know, you know.  That's not -- that's not my business.  But it's a question I think worth asking, because it seems to me that the cutoff is worth thinking about if the situation continues to worsen in Libya. 

I guess the one question there would be, you know, Libya does not -- in a sense, there is a global oil market.  But in another sense, the Libyan oil goes very largely to Italy, Germany, France, particularly Italy, and so you have to be sure that you had some way of supplying the countries like Italy that are highly dependent on Libya.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Peter Green with Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I'm wondering to what extent the ability or willingness of the U.S. to put forth some of the things that Mr. Abrams is describing -- even more forceful action -- is hampered by the inability to get the diplomats out of Tripoli.  Are they afraid of some sort of Tehran '79?

ABRAMS:  Well, I've heard that theory proposed, that the main constraint on administration language is precisely the fear for Americans in Libya.  I would have to say that the administration's language was, however, very constrained in June 2009 after the Iran elections and pretty constrained in the case of -- or at least wavered -- in the case of Egypt.  So I'm not sure. 

But I hope that, in addition to whatever efforts we're making to watch our language if we're trying to get people out of Libya, that we are also, frankly, threatening the Libyans.  I think we should make it very clear to -- the administration should make it very clear to people in that regime that if any harm comes to American citizens at the hands of government supporters or government forces, we will punish the people who took charge of that.

I would -- I would make a very clear threat here to the people who are in charge. 

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Andrew Solomon, CFR. 

QUESTIONER:  Oh, hi.  I've been watching the crisis and was in Libya myself writing about not too long ago.  I've been trying to make sense of the question of who the opposition is, whether there's any central organizing principle to it.  There was enormous antipathy toward Gadhafi when I was there, but not much sign of a visible opposition, which leaves the question of whether, if Gadhafi does eventually flee, there will be people who were not previously members of his regime who are qualified to set up a new government.

ABRAMS:  Well, that's a very -- that's a great and very difficult question.  And I mean, one has to -- I guess one has to go back and say that this is not a situation where you have a country like Egypt that has been a country for a very, very long time.  You don't really have a Libya until really, what, 1951, until after the Second World War.  And you know, you have the declaration of the unity of Libya by King Idris. 

So it's a good question whether there are national elites who could take over after Gadhafi leaves.  There are certainly individuals -- you know, just take, for example, the number of Libyan ambassadors around the world -- who are quite competent, in my experience -- who have defected in the last few days:  their U.S. ambassador, their U.N. ambassador.  Some of their ambassadors in Europe could easily go back and man the Foreign Ministry in a post-Gadhafi regime. 

I would -- there are some Libyan technocrats who could presumably stay on.  You'd lose the top level of people in the regime, ministers, for example.  And I think you'd have to worry -- I mean, I think we should worry a lot about what a post-Gadhafi Libya would be like.  There are no institutions.  He's spent 40 years trying to prevent the formation of institutions.  And it's not a country with a great deal of national unity.  You don't have a monarchy that goes back, you know, centuries that can be a source of great national unity.  The monarchy itself was really a modern -- a modern project.

So I think it's a very good question, and I think one should worry a lot about what -- how stable and democratic a post-Gadhafi Libya would be, and how quickly. 

GWERTZMAN:  Next.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queuing instructions.) 

Our next question comes from Robert Dreyfuss, The Nation.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hi.  There's a lot of hypocrisy to go around here, and POLITICO reports today that people like Richard Perle and Bernard Lewis have been engaged recently in doing public relations work, visiting Libya and -- for a company that was trying to promote Libya's interests.  And in the larger sense, there's been a lot of debate among conservatives, neoconservatives, about the democracy or the freedom agenda -- you know, why didn't we support the Hamas election, why didn't we support the electoral strength of Hezbollah and so on. 

So I mean, can you kind of describe for me what the debate is among neoconservative circles about whether this Arab revolt is a good thing or a bad thing?

ABRAMS:  My impression is that there is not so much of a revolt in neoconservative circles; that is, that neoconservatives have been accused for a very long time of being crusaders for democracy, particularly by people who view themselves as realists.  This was one of the great criticisms of the neocons by people like Henry Kissinger or Zbig Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, that we were crusaders for democracy. 

And so I would have said I didn't -- I don't know about the information you've just provided, but I would have said that there was not much debate that there was a steady support for this in the years Bush was doing it and a pretty steady criticism of the Obama administration on the argument that it had downplayed the freedom agenda too much.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Clayton McCleskey, The Dallas Morning News. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I was wondering if you could talk about European influence on Libya and elsewhere in the region -- for that matter, how much influence the EU is able to wield -- and then within Europe, if the countries are outshining others.  I'm thinking specifically of Britain and its desire to perhaps be able to punch above its weight and show that it remains influential in its own right.

ABRAMS:  Well, I guess Libya's a special case, because it was an Italian colony for about 30 years, 1911 to 1943.  So it -- there's more Italian influence there than you would find in neighboring countries in North Africa. 

In the Gulf -- I'm thinking of Bahrain -- the British clearly have more influence than any other European country.  The same thing, I think, I would say about Egypt, just because of the remaining kind of cultural influence and prestige of the British Empire. 

There had been, at least in Egypt, pretty considerable French cultural influence, and obviously it remains in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco.  In Egypt, I think it has pretty well dissipated over the decades since the Second World War. 

I remember my first trip to Egypt was 1981, and everybody in the Foreign Ministry wanted to speak French to you because that was the language of diplomacy, and they wanted to show that they were educated and refined people.  That is no longer the case.  I mean, it's 30 years later, and that kind of cultural influence is gone. 

I think we're really just talking, except for the -- some Italian influence in Libya, we're really just talking about the British and the French, and mostly the British. 

GWERTZMAN:  Next? 

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Tami Hultman, AllAfrica Global Media.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I wanted to ask about your opinion of the response to U.S. action in other places, like Africa, where there are 17 elections coming up.  A lot of Libyan-Americans and Africans and Africans in the diaspora are looking to the U.S. to see whether it's going to be standing on the side of democracy.  Do you think Libya's a big test case for that in the -- (inaudible)?

ABRAMS:  Yeah.  I should first disclaimer (sic) that I don't follow Africa here and there are colleagues -- Jendayi Frazer, who was assistant secretary of state for Africa in the second Bush administration, is here at the Council on Foreign Relations and would be the better person to answer that. 

I do think there's a broader question about whether in response to these, let's say, Arab revolts, the administration increases its pro-democracy activities.  I've been critical over the past two years of it.  I think there's been a reduction, maybe just a reaction against the Bush administration.  But I've been critical that there hasn't been enough of it. 

And perhaps one reaction to the events of the last month or so would be an increased focus by the administration on what the United States can do to promote democracy, promote free elections, help countries that wish to move in that direction do so successfully.

GWERTZMAN:  Next, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Mitch Potter, Toronto Star newspaper.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Thanks for doing this.  I wonder -- could I ask you to elaborate a little bit on the options that you see of a post-Gadhafi era?  I know it's very foggy right now, but if you can talk a little bit more about some of the regional dynamics in Libya, sort of the east versus west, and what you might know about the tribal dynamic as well.

ABRAMS:  Yeah.

QUESTIONER:  Do you see three or four or more or less variables for a kind of government that might possibly emerge? 

ABRAMS:  Yeah.  This is a very complicated business.  And I don't want to present myself as any kind of expert on the Libyan tribal structure.  There are a few academic experts on it in the U.S. 

But it seems to me that were Gadhafi to fall in, let's say, the next week, which I think is plausible, you would need some kind of provisional government.  The danger is that you have two or three provisional governments, that you have a provisional government -- one of the dangers -- you have a provisional government in Benghazi, you have a provisional government in Tripoli, and that you don't have much of a national structure. 

To get a national structure, you're going to need the kinds of compromises that are going to be very obscure to most of us but very clear to anyone involved in Libyan politics, where you will have a balance of the main tribes.  It's a little bit -- it's probably a really bad analogy, but a little bit more like Lebanon where the constitution splits offices among religious groups.  I think you'll see something a little bit more like that, because there's going to have to be a division of labor. 

The regional line and the tribal line do not exactly overlap.  You've also got, from the wealth point of view, two separate oil basins, one east, one west.  And I suppose that's a good thing in the sense that it may be the oil exports and the revenue that flows from them that can be a means of uniting the country as they negotiate over who gets what. 

The danger, of course, would be that somebody would try, in a sense, to conquer one or the other oil pipelines and try to get the revenue from it. 

So this is -- it's potentially a very difficult situation, again, because there isn't a long nation-building period pre-Gadhafi.  It's a very short unified national experience.  And what one can hope is that there are enough Libyans around the world who have been educated, who would not have been educated here unless they're really in their 60s, because of the decades in which Libyans were not permitted to come here, but maybe who've been educated in Europe and who were really capable of holding these positions.  And you're going to need to get -- you're going to need to get some kind of agreement among the tribes as to how to balance who gets what.  

It's going to be -- you know, the old Robert Dahl definition of politics is, you know, who gets what, when and how.  I think you're going to have -- they're going to have to make some agreements about that in any post-Gadhafi government.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queuing instructions.) 

Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell, The Mitchell Report. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you, and thanks for doing this.  The question I want to ask touches on what was asked earlier about what -- if Gadhafi goes, what comes next? 

But I'll ask it in a slightly different context.  And that is, we've had -- we've had two changes of regime; we're looking possibly at two more in a single region.  How does that -- how does that affect short-term and longer-term -- in what ways, I should say, does it, both short term and longer term, affect what one might call a regional approach to foreign and national security policy in that -- in that region?  What are the things that we could anticipate that we may have to be dealing with that as short a time as three months ago, we really weren't thinking about?

ABRAMS:  If you take the region as running from the Persian Gulf to Morocco, there are a number of things.  One, the relationship with new governments, some of which may resent or may have individuals in them who resent American support of or closeness with or at best indifference to the dictatorships that were recently overthrown.  Of course, we hope that isn't true.  And so far we haven't seen much of it in Tunisia or in Egypt.  But that's one question:  How do we relate to new governments if they -- if there are people in them who hold a grudge against us for previous support of the regimes that were in power.

Secondly, in some of these cases, we've -- these regimes have been part of a kind of American hegemony in the region that has included military bases.  You've seen the debates over the last few days about the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and what would happen if the government there fell.  What -- would a new government in Egypt maintain the peace treaty with Israel?

All of those questions are at least to some degree in doubt in a way that they were not three months ago.  So far, it looks as if they will turn out pretty well.  I noticed remarks in the last day or two by Amr Moussa, who is running for president of Egypt and -- I think, actually would have to be considered the frontrunner to be the next president of Egypt -- pretty supportive of the peace treaty with Israel.

But these are -- these are questions that will arise.  The deeper question, I guess, is the question that was raised in 2003 by President Bush, which is, have we got the right formula for stability in the region?  The formula seemed to be based mostly on making do with whatever regimes were in power and using American military power.

And the argument he made at the time was in the long run, that wouldn't work.  Of course, that's eight years ago, and that's a considerable period of time.  But it seems -- it seems to be right.  That is, that in the long run, we're going to need a policy that goes beyond accepting whatever regime exists and takes a greater account of the desire of Arabs to live in greater freedom, something that was -- you know, that's been doubted for decades, a great theory of Arab exceptionalism.  It certainly seems to be false.

I'd say one other thing, which is up until -- up until Tunisia, it was commonplace among people who looked at the region to say, you know, there's always trouble, but no regime ever falls; the only regimes that ever fall since -- you know, for decades, are regimes that the United States knocks over, like Iraq; and no matter how popular or unpopular or abusive a regime is, these national security regimes, other times called the Mukhabarat regimes, stay there forever.

That is now obviously not true.  And so one of the things we're going to be dealing with for the first time in a very long time is the uncertainty in country after country, as they try to build democratic regimes and we try to help, but no one can really be sure what the outcome will be.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

GWERTZMAN:  Next.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Michael Allen, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Yeah, my thanks also for doing this.  Just one final question on the -- on the post-Gadhafi sort of power struggle.  Are any of the tribes that we're talking about that might reach ascendency, are they -- any of them -- you know, are they all people that the West can do business with, or are there sort of, you know, fundamentalist strains at work that we should be worried about?

ABRAMS:  Yeah, again, I want a little bit of a disclaimer here.  These -- this is something that Libya academic experts get into.  There -- some tribes are viewed as more Islamist than others.  But I'm a little bit suspicious of that, because it really isn't clear what is meant by the term.  The -- in some cases, for example, they've been (close ?) to a kind of Sufi approach to Islam, which traditionally is not associated with terrorist violence at all.

I would -- but I -- so, first answer:  I'm not really sure.  But I don't think there's any tribe that you would say that this is a tribe linked to al-Qaida. 

It is true, however, that there is a thing called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, LIFG, which has been around for a very long time and which is a -- which is a terrorist group.  And one of the -- one of the things that the United States government has had in common with Moammar Gadhafi over these recent years is that both of us oppose the LIFG.  He viewed it as a threat.  And we in a different sense viewed it as a threat, so we could cooperate against them.

And that group exists and, you know, one always worries that if things were to collapse in Libya and Libya were -- Libya is a very large country.  Libya is the size of Alaska.  And if significant parts of it became ungoverned space, you would worry, as you do in Yemen or Somalia, that the ungoverned space would provide many opportunities for the LIFG.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next?

OPERATOR:  (Gives queuing instructions.)  Our next question comes from Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times.

QUESTIONER:  Well, thank you for doing this.  My question is, compared to the way you reacted to the protests in Egypt, this time, in Libya, U.S. seems most reluctant to get involved.  Why -- would you agree?  And if you do, can the U.S. do more, given that it has no leverage in Tripoli, it has no -- (inaudible) -- with Gadhafi or his government?  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  I do think that the United States has seemed slow to react to events in Tripoli.  I mean, one reason you can give to justify that is that the United States has had a very close relationship with Sadat and Mubarak going back three decades.  And we have given roughly $30 billion in aid, 3 billion (dollars) a year, over the last 10 years.  And you know, we've had a close relationship between their military and ours, their intelligence people and ours.  So that was a very close relationship that doesn't exist in the case of Libya.  Even though the relationship was restored -- we finally sent an ambassador, Libya sent an ambassador here about four years ago -- nevertheless, it's not at all a close relationship.  And it's not surprising, from that point of view, that we would be more involved in Egypt.  So I think it's a mistake to have reacted quite this slowly.

Now what can -- we don't have a lot of influence on the ground in Tripoli.  That is -- that is true, but the kinds of things that I'm suggesting that we consider -- others have suggested an oil embargo.  I've talked about what may be symbolic but nevertheless useful, an arms embargo, throwing them off the U.N. Human Rights Council -- they've been suspended from the Arab League -- a Security Council session that perhaps imposes sanctions on individuals in the regime, a travel ban.  This sort of thing can be imposed from the outside, even if we're not there in strength on the ground.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Next?  Next?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Gentlemen, there are no more questions at this time -- actually, we have Barry Schweid, Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  We replied to your question.

QUESTIONER:  I know that!  But it's such -- I can't find any reference to your question on the wire.

GWERTZMAN:  Hey, Barry.  Hey, Barry.  Hey Barry.  How are you?

QUESTIONER:  I'm fine, Bernie.  Can I speak -- ask the question?

GWERTZMAN:  You may.

ABRAMS:  (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER:  You want to answer it?

GWERTZMAN:  No. 

QUESTIONER:  Gee, I hope I heard you right, Elliott. 

ABRAMS:  Yup.

QUESTIONER:  You said that the Arab League has suspended Libya.

ABRAMS:  That is what I heard.  Yes.

MR. GWERTZMAN (?):  I heard that --

QUESTIONER:  Oh, what you heard.  I don't -- I don't -- I see it on some wires.  I don't see it on the wire of renown, the Associated Press.  (Chuckles.)  So if you can provide any details -- I mean, it's kind of -- boy, there must be worse offenders.  But, so what do -- 

ABRAMS:  Yesterday, it was reported that the Libyan ambassador to the Arab League had, if you will, defected.  And today I saw the report that the league itself had acted -- it was a statement, I believe, by Amr Moussa, but we can go check that.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.

OPERATOR:  There are -- there are no more questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Thank you, Elliott.

ABRAMS:  All right.  Thank you all.

GWERTZMAN:  Take care.  All right.  Bye-bye. 

QUESTIONER:  Bye.

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