711.56373/10–952: Telegram

The Minister in Libya (Villard) to the Department of State1


236. Re Deptel 166, Sept 24.2 I gave PriMin Dept’s reply to his ltr on base agreement yesterday. Muntasser said it wld be considered by Council of Mins which began mtg today, after which he wld discuss subject further with me. In order give him opportunity to disclaim official reps shld he so desire, I have followed his lead in keeping our correspondence on informal personal level.

Without Arabic translation PriMin did not attempt comment on contents reply but immed pointed out that if agrmt were submitted to Parliament without additional compensation it wld incur defeat and he and his Cabinet wld be forced to resign. In that event, policy of govt wld be unpredictable. He repeated previous statements that public sentiment demanded increased payment for econ aid and that members of Parl, who had been carefully canvassed on subj, were united in view that agrmt cld not be ratified otherwise.

While I concur fully with reasoning in Dept’s reply, which has stated the case well from our point of view, I think we must now take into consideration possible consequences of our refusal to accede to PriMin’s request for additional income. On basis of Muntasser’s statements, matter narrows down to question of increased dollar payments over fixed period of years, as I believe that duration of agrmt can be maintained at 20 years without undue difficulty. It shld be borne in mind this connection that indirect aid such as dollar expenditures by Wheelus Field (which Army engineers estimate will last only two or three years at present rate) fails to meet Libyan Govt’s desire for free money to be spent on various projects designed to further Libyan economy, or possibly to assist in transferring Libyan currency from sterling to dollar backing and thus reduce Brit controls on Libyan dollar spending. Libyan objective to eliminate financial dependence on Brit was hinted by Suleiman Jerbi when he delivered PriMin’s ltr to me in Cyrene (Benghazi tel 34, Sept 2).

[Page 554]

If PriMin presents agrmt in November and it is rejected, we will be faced with serious problem. If King’s remarks to me are to be taken at face value, Muntasser’s position wld then be “very critical” and I have little doubt he wld feel impelled to resign if he encountered such a setback.

Rejection of agrmt might also prejudice ratification of UK Treaty of Alliance (mytel 189 Sept 24).3 End of Muntasser regime and removal of his pro-Western influence wld completely change polit atmosphere in Libya. We wld thus have lost a friendly govt and still have no base agrmt. There is no one in sight to replace Muntasser except volatile, nationalistic and impulsive Fathi Kekhia, whose ambitions for premiership are subj of recurrent rumors.

As Dept rightly observes, govt has not exercised effective leadership in matter of base agrmt. Unfortunate fact is that PriMin never disclosed to us extent of objections to agrmt until after Parl had adjourned, by which time he was captive of opinion which he himself had allowed to develop. Not only has PriMin done nothing to explain benefits of agrmt (its terms are still regarded as top secret by Libyan Govt), but he summarily departed from Tripoli to spend summer in Jebel after Parl was informed July 21 that agrmt wld be submitted for its consideration following week (mytel 63, July 25).4 PriMin admitted to me that members of Parl had been briefed only on exchange of ltrs regarding economic aid. As mentioned in Benghazi tel 24 Aug 22,5 govt appears to have deliberately refrained from preparing ground for passage of agrmt and to have permitted hostile press campaign to proceed unchecked. Memo which I submitted to PriMin July 17 for his use in supporting agrmt in Parl seems to have been ignored or suppressed as no reference has ever been made to it by Libyans.6

It is questionable whether Muntasser has by nature aptitude or inclination for leadership needed to secure adoption of any controversial govt measure. He personally lacks force in his public attitudes and avoids taking strong position where opposition may be expected, as, for example, in presenting US with Legation property site and then placing on US responsibility for inducing Brit to vacate site. With all Muntasser’s weaknesses, however, fact remains he is ablest pro-Western politician on scene. Despite prospect of losing one million dollar econ aid per annum, unless PriMin assumed active leadership [Page 555]of drive to have agrmt accepted, which he obviously does not propose to do under present circumstances, there wld appear little likelihood of obtaining ratification in foreseeable future. At best, agrmt might be shelved indefinitely, with all the attendant uncertainties as to present and future status of USAF activities in Libya.

Even if we succeeded in getting agrmt ratified under pressure from King or PriMin, relations between Wheelus Field and Libyan Govt wld probably become strained without additional compensation in some form. Numerous minor annoyances cld assume major proportions, such as question of social insurance for USAF civilian employees and recently expressed Libyan desire that no foreign military shld be permitted in transit at Wheelus. If questions of this kind shld be seriously agitated, it might become necessary to renegotiate entire base agrmt under much more onerous conditions than before. Needless to say, an unfriendly or resentful attitude on part of Libyans wld make it difficult to proceed with plans for new mil installations in other parts of Libya, even though agrmt gave us right to do so.

While I am of course in accord with proposition that US defense effort is not commercial enterprise, I fear that in embroidering its case with US “responsibility for collective defense,” Dept has used argument least likely to influence Libyan mind. Defense against potential internatl aggression is almost meaningless to average Libyan, who however, is generally willing to accept US grants and contributions for this purpose if he thinks he can benefit thereby. Attitude of Libyan Govt in this matter was summed up by PriMin when he characterized idea of Libyan contribution to collective defense of free world as “sentimental” (Benghazi tel 47 Sept 19).7 On various occasions Libyan officials have indicated to me that they regard Libya’s sole tangible asset to be its strategic position. They believe they shld capitalize on this principal exportable item to maximum extent, and I have little doubt that in surrendering base rights to US they feel they are selling goods and services. In the interest of Libyan economy, as well as their personal prestige, they wish these goods and services to be paid for at as high a price as possible. While American defense effort at Wheelus Field is certainly not “commercial transaction” from our standpoint, Libyans wld have difficulty in regarding it otherwise. Defense against Soviet imperialism is scarcely understood and seldom mentioned in Libya. Defense against French or Brit “aggression” is much more comprehensible.

I know Dept will regard this situation in light of foregoing and will not expect Libyans to accept high principles of “common defense [Page 556]against the aggressor” as sufficient answer to their arguments. In final analysis it wld seem to be question of strategic value which we place on Wheelus measured in unsentimental terms of cash, which is basis of Libyan position. While it may yet be possible to avoid raising the ante, I trust Dept is exploring all other means of inducing Libyans to ratify agrmt. If an offer were made to meet Libyans at least part way in their request, we might find it to our advantage to propose some “package deal” under which assurances cld be given us regarding interpretation of base agrmt as it applies to current problems at Wheelus or to other base areas in future. In other words, there may well be matters connected with smooth operation of USAF in Libya which cld be included in any proposal for settlement of Libyan desire for increased compensation.

Legation is sending separate tel on steps which we might take to obtain greater publicity for benefits accruing to Libya through expenditures at Wheelus Field.8

  1. This telegram was repeated to London and Benghazi.
  2. Not printed; it informed the Minister that the Department of State approved his reply to the Prime Minister’s letter of Aug. 29 (see telegram 34 from Benghazi, Sept. 2, p. 545) and instructed him to make a further written reply, enumerating the financial advantages Libya was receiving from the United States. The Department suggested he say in the letter that if all members of the Libyan Parliament were dissatisfied with the grant and with the duration of the military agreement, it indicated a regrettable misunderstanding of the benefits which the Libyan Government itself negotiated and had confidently predicted would be ratified. Since the U.S. facilities in Libya were not a commercial enterprise but rather part of a defense effort benefiting Libya and all nations of the free world as well as the United States, the U.S. Government could not agree to reconsider the agreements. Tripoli despatch 71, Oct. 23, transmitted a copy of the letter mentioned in the source text. Documentation is in Department of State file 711.56373.
  3. Not printed. (873.10/9–2452)
  4. Not printed; it reported questions about Wheelus Field by members of the Chamber of Deputies, who wanted to know why the U.S.-Libyan agreement had not been submitted to the Parliament. The government said it would submit the agreement the following week. (711.56373/7–2552)
  5. Not printed, but see footnote 5, p. 547.
  6. Tripoli despatch 33, Aug. 29, transmitted a copy of the Minister’s letter of July 17. Attached to it was a joint letter from the Commanding Officer of Wheelus Field and the District Engineer of the Middle East District, giving a detailed account of the direct economic benefits which Libya derived from USAF operations. (711.56373/8–2952)
  7. Not printed; it reported that the Prime Minister said Libya’s poverty required the sale of its base rights at a fair price to ensure its national survival. Even though Libya supported the United States, whose lack of colonial aspirations endeared it to Libya, it could not afford to be sentimental and give away its base rights. (711.56373/9–1952)
  8. Tripoli telegram 252, Oct. 13, suggested the Department of State might want to consider a one-time lump-sum payment to Libya, or perhaps a part payment in property, such as a coastal patrol boat, an airplane, or some port facilities equipment. (711.56373/10–1352)