149. Despatch From the Embassy in Libya to the Department of State1

No. 185


  • Libyan Exchange of Diplomatic Representatives with USSR and the United States Position in Libya


The Libyan decision to exchange diplomatic representatives with the USSR was not made because of any feeling of friendship for Communism or support of the Soviets. Rather it was based on (1) a desire to refute charges that Libya is subservient to the West [Page 422] and (2) the belief that Western aid to Libya would be increased if we felt that she might turn to the USSR for aid.

The Embassy feels that continued sporadic anti-Western acts and statements may be expected until the time comes when the Arab World as a whole has been convinced that to be anti-Western is not in itself proof of pro-Arabism. The Embassy is also of the opinion that a carefully considered and realistic analysis of our interests in Libya and the size of the investment we are willing to make to preserve them is essential. When this has been done, the Embassy recommends that we should make our assistance available slowly, using the hope of more as an incentive to keep Libya aligned with the West on major issues but not allowing ourselves to become unduly perturbed by generalized anti-Western statements.

The announcement on September 25, 1955, that the Governments of Libya and the USSR had agreed to exchange diplomatic representatives requires a review of the present trend of Libyan policy and its effect on the position of the United States in Libya. While it is probably too much to say that infiltration of Libya is, in itself, a primary target of the Soviet Union in this area, it is clear that Libya could be important as a means of extending Soviet influence westward across North Africa. Should Libya become a channel through which Communist subversion could be directed and supported in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and the usual nationalist and anti-imperialist slogans and agitation (as well as material assistance) used to keep the area in turmoil, NATO would, in effect, be outflanked. It is enough to recall the concern offers the French Government at reports (fortunately false) that anti-French “terrorists” were being assisted from Libya to see the dangerous possibilities of the situation. This Embassy is, of course, not in a position to evaluate Soviet intentions with regard to Libya. However, on the assumption that the USSR desires to exploit North African unrest, it is essential to review the situation and consider counter-measures.

Obviously, if Libyan-Soviet diplomatic relations presage close and friendly ties between the two countries, the position of the United States here will be seriously undermined. It does not seem to the Embassy, however, that there is any chance that this will occur in the forseeable future. In fact, all indications are that the Libyan decision to agree to repeated Soviet suggestions that the two countries exchange diplomatic representatives was made on entirely different grounds.

In the first place, Libyan policy for the past year has become more and more openly one of maintaining a balance between the West (especially the US and UK) and the Arab League (especially Egypt). This is not a new policy, but during the first years of Libyan independence the political and economic realities made it essential that Libya’s primary effort be directed toward stabilizing her relations [Page 423] with the US, the UK, and France and ensuring adequate foreign financial contribution to permit the country to survive economically. While not neglecting the Arab League, Libya found herself unable to take any great part in the consideration of League problems because her own immediate interests lay in negotiations with the West.

As a result of the conclusion of treaties with the UK and France and a Base Agreement with the United States, Libya thus became the target of accusations that she was a vassal of the West. Some of these accusations were based on her willingness to make concessions to the West, while others were founded on Libyan unwillingness (and inability) to do more than pay lip service to the two pet themes of Arab extremists—that Israel must be obliterated and that the French presence in North Africa must come to an end. This is one reason why Prime Minister Mustafa Bin Halim feels that he must make periodic statements (usually in Cairo) in which he plays down Libya’s connections with the West and argues that Libya’s interests are identical with those of the other Arab League States. In the present instance the whole Libyan Government, including the King, seems to have been under the impression that “proof” of Libya’s independence of the West must be provided, and that the exchange of diplomatic representatives with the USSR would provide such “proof”.

In the second place, it seems obvious that Libyan policy makers understand the fact that the West, especially the United States, tends to pay more attention to areas where there is an immediate danger of Soviet penetration. Moreover, there is a wide-spread impression that one good way to obtain assistance from the United States is to flirt with the USSR. For example, C. Pitt Hardacre, Principal Finance and Economic Adviser, has hinted slyly that Libya might have to turn to the Soviet bloc for assistance in financing the purchase and rehabilitation of the Tripoli power plant should no funds be forthcoming from Western sources. The Embassy is of the opinion that Libya expects that more attention from the United States and in all probability more assistance will be forthcoming as a result of this recent decision.

Other factors of less fundamental importance, including the King’s naive explanation to Ambassador Tappin that having a Soviet Embassy would mean that the Communists would be in the open and could be watched more easily, were probably taken into consideration. Among these was the Libyan desire to obtain UN membership, previously blocked by a Soviet veto. It appears, however, that the major reasons for the Libyan decision were those described above: (1) a feeling that such an action would provide a needed “proof” of Libyan independence of the West and (2) the hope that [Page 424] increased assistance would accrue to Libya as a result of Western reaction to the Soviet threat. If this analysis is correct, the danger of active Libyan cooperation with the USSR is remote.

There is as yet no information available as to the form which Soviet diplomatic representation in Libya will take and the Libyan Foreign Office states that to date no request for agrément has been received. Until the size and nature of the Soviet diplomatic mission is known and it actually appears in Libya, it is impossible to evaluate the effect which Soviet activities will have. One obvious move would be the infiltration of potential saboteurs into Wheelus Field Air Force Base, and the Base Commander is already increasing security measures as a precaution.

To a very real extent, however, the long term Libyan attitude toward such operations as the USSR may attempt to initiate here will depend on the attitude and actions of the Western powers, particularly the US and UK. The Embassy is of the opinion that it is not only possible to prevent the USSR from establishing an advanced base in Libya (assuming that it desires to do so), but that it can be a relatively inexpensive operation. … , and a carefully considered and properly phased continuing program of military assistance to Libya should provide an effective barricade to Soviet penetration of the Libyan Army through … , as well as tying the Army to the West. Continued and expanded assistance to the Libyan Government in the training of police officers is another means by which direct action can be taken to forestall possible subversive activity. In the long run, economic and technical assistance on a realistic scale and an energetic information program should be adequate to prevent the growth of any large indigenous Communist movement. However, in all our thinking and planning it seems to the Embassy that we must keep in mind two important considerations: (1) The Libyan Government will continue to be influenced by criticism from the Arab League to the effect that it is subservient to the West and will take those steps it feels are necessary to refute this criticism. Recent examples of what may be expected are public statements in which Libya is pictured as having been the center of all anti-French activity in North Africa, and flurries of anti-Israeli editorial comment. In addition, we can expect some specific statements or actions tending to align Libya against the West. Until the [Page 425] Arab World as a whole no longer believes that any anti-Western statement or act is of necessity pro-Arab, Libyan attempts to prove independence and “Arabism” can be expected to take this form. In the meantime, we should not be unduly alarmed by such activities so long as Libya remains a friend on the major issues.

(2) The Libyan Government will use every means in its power to persuade us to increase our assistance, whether it be technical, economic, or military. Flirtations with the USSR and confidential revelations of offers from the Soviets or their satellites or from other anti-West sources are one tactic which the Libyans will very probably use to obtain favorable action on their requests. One way to handle this type of maneuver would be to give the Libyans immediately anything and everything they request. Obviously this would be unwise, although not impossibly expensive simply because Libya’s total needs plus her total desires are quite limited. A more realistic approach, and one which the Embassy endorses, requires that we first make sure in our own minds exactly how much we are willing to invest in Libya. Having done this, we should under no circumstances reveal our plans in toto to the Libyans. Rather we should move slowly but steadily, staggering our contributions over a period of time and using the hope of more as a “carrot”, but not openly using the threat of reducing assistance. We can, however, tactfully point out on occasion the importance to Libya of continued cooperation with the West. The Embassy feels that this approach to our Libyan policy will produce the desired results, but the key to its success lies in constant attention to the problem of our position in Libya coupled with recognition of the fact that we must concentrate on obtaining Libyan cooperation on major issues.

For the Ambassador:
David G. Nes
First Secretary of Embassy
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 601.6173/11–3055. Secret.