The Washington Diplomat / October 2009
By Larry Luxner
On a hot Sunday evening in Tripoli last month, U.S. Embassy officials threw a lively farewell party for a colleague completing her tour of duty in Libya. As waiters passed out appetizers and bartenders poured drinks, local and foreign executives talked business and an expatriate band belted out "Midnight at the Oasis."
In any other world capital, this would have been just another diplomatic reception — but not in Libya, where only five years ago "America" was still a dirty word.
"It's quite remarkable when you look at how far we've come," said U.S. Ambassador Gene Allan Cretz, Washington's first envoy in Tripoli since 1972. "Not many members of my generation of diplomats have had such a unique opportunity to make history."
Cretz was in his final year of college when the last U.S. ambassador here, Joseph Palmer, left the country following increasing tensions between the United States and Libya's newly installed leader, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Nearly four decades later, Qaddafi is still in power — and Palmer's official Libyan diplomatic license plate decorates Cretz's office at the dusty U.S. Embassy compound just outside Tripoli.
That Cretz is in Libya at all is something of a small miracle, considering the 18 months his nomination by President Bush was delayed by Congress.
"Sen. Lautenberg [of New Jersey] and three others, on the day of my nomination, announced they would place a hold on my appointment as ambassador until the Libyans made good on their promise to compensate the victims of terrorism," Cretz told The Washington Diplomat in a one-hour exclusive interview, rattling off by memory the pertinent dates of his long odyssey.
"I had my Senate hearing on Sept. 24, 2008. The Senate confirmed me on Nov. 20, 2008, and [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice swore me in on Dec. 17, 2008," he said. "I arrived here on Dec. 27, 2008, and presented my credentials on Jan. 11, 2009."
Even then, it was hardly smooth sailing for Cretz, whose last posting was U.S. deputy chief of mission in Tel Aviv.
"It took seven months for the Libyans to agree to my appointment, which is an inordinately long time," he said. "But when you think about it, we had not had relations with Libya for 36 years. It was a long wait, but it was done — as everything is — in Libyan time, which means when they're good and ready."
Cretz's arrival in Tripoli coincided with Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip, which only made matters worse. But since then, relations have progressively improved — to the point where the Obama administration now considers the Qaddafi government not a source of terrorism but rather a key partner in the fight against it.
"There's no doubt we've had a very rocky relationship with Libya," he said, "but Libya has acknowledged its responsibility for acts of terrorism. They did what the international community asked of them: they gave up their weapons of mass destruction, they renounced terrorism and they compensated victims of their actions in the past."
The final hurdle came on Oct. 31, 2008, when Libya made a final payment of $1.5 billion into a fund set up for families of the 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground who died in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
'That payment enabled restrictions to be lifted. and to allow restoration of immunity for Libyan diplomats in the United States," said Cretz. "Today we have ambassadors in both capitals, we have high-level discussions, and we have the full range of range of diplomatic intercourse on consular issues. Right now, we're in the process of a step-by-step approach to expanding our relations in several different fields. It's a work in progress."
Cretz, 59, is originally from Albany, N.Y. He majored in English literature at the University of Rochester and speaks Arabic, Chinese, Urdu and Dari, as well as a little French and Spanish — "enough to cause damage, but not enough to conduct business," he quips.
A Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, Cretz began his diplomatic career with a tour of duty in Islamabad, Pakistan. He then went on to serve in Damascus, New Delhi and Tel Aviv, where he was the Arabic-speaking officer in charge of Gaza affairs. During a subsequent tour in Washington, he studied Chinese and then worked in Beijing. That was followed by a tour in Cairo, and return tours in Damascus and Tel Aviv before assuming his new job in Tripoli.
The well-traveled diplomat has nothing but praise for his counterpart in Washington, Libyan Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali.
"We've known each other for awhile now, and I find him to be professional," said Cretz. "He's a very sober individual, clearly up to the task of what he's been asked to do in Washington, which hasn't been easy. He was there during the rough period when the United States and Libya didn't have a good relationship."
These days, Cretz spends much of his time on economic issues — among them a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement that'll serve as a blueprint for bilateral commercial ties. Cretz says at least 20 U.S. corporate giants are active in Libya. Among the biggest: Caterpillar, Hill International, ExxonMobil, AECOM and Occidental Petroleum.
"There's a lot of money to be made here," he said. "The Libyans have an $84 billion infrastructure program, and they want American companies and expertise here. But the competition is fierce, because everybody is attracted to the place."
As ambassador, Cretz oversees 36 U.S. diplomats plus 150 local hires. Prior to his arrival, embassy staff worked out of a suite at the five-star Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel. For now, its operations are split between a complex of nine villas where Cretz's office is located, and another site 16 miles away.
Cretz said he's looking for a secure site where a new U.S. embassy can be built from scratch, but that likely won't happen for another five years.
"In April, we made the decision to provide full visa facilities here in Tripoli so that Libyans wouldn't have to travel to Tunisia twice — once to apply for a visa, then a second time to pick it up. This was a big step on our part," he said.
"I am now very intensively engaged with the Libyans to work out a reciprocal system," he said. "Libya needs to be a bit more transparent when it comes to the issuance of visas. It's still very difficult for Americans to get visas to come here."
Cretz hasn't yet sat down with Qaddafi for a one-on-one, though the two men have chatted briefly three times at various receptions. "When Qaddafi met with one of our visiting generals, he spoke with quite remarkable detail about Africa and the Middle East," the ambassador recalled. "He's very up-to-date on the news, even though we may not agree with his opinions."