Washington: In the months before Libyans revolted and US President Barack Obama told leader Muammar Gaddafi to go, the US government was moving to do business with his regime on an increasing scale by quietly approving a USD 77 million deal to deliver at least 50 refurbished armoured troop carriers to the dictator`s military.
Congress balked, concerned the deal would improve Libyan Army mobility and questioning the Obama administration`s support for the agreement, which would have benefited British defence company BAE.
The congressional concerns effectively stalled the deal until the turmoil in the country scuttled the sale. Earlier last week, after all military exports to the Gaddafi regime were suspended, the State Department`s Directorate of Defence Trade Controls informed Capitol Hill that the deal had been returned without action — effectively off the table, according to US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the deal`s sensitive details.
State Department spokesman Mark C Toner said the proposed license was suspended along with the rest of "what limited defence trade we had with Libya”.
The Gaddafi regime`s desire to upgrade its troop carriers was so intense that a Libyan official told US diplomats in Tripoli in 2009 that the dictator`s sons, Khamis and Saif, both were demanding swift action. Khamis, a commander whose Army brigade reportedly attacked the opposition-held town of Zawiya with armoured units and pickup trucks, expressed a "personal interest" in modernizing the armoured transports, according to a December 2009 diplomatic message disclosed by WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website.
The administration`s own interest in the deal amounted to a first cautious step toward allowing a major arms purchase by Gaddafi’s regime even as US officials waved off other Libyan approaches for weapons systems and military aid.
Toner said senior diplomats had repeatedly warned the Gaddafi regime that "we would not discuss the possibility of lethal US arms sales until Libya made significant progress on human rights issues, visas and other areas of bilateral relationship."
The old M113 troop transports are typically outfitted with a single machine gun. US officials said the now-scuttled deal would not have added new cannons or other guns because of strict rules that all defence sales to Libya had to be "non-lethal" defence products.
But despite the "non-lethal" restrictions, some defence industry experts said the proposal should have never gotten off the ground.
"This deal should have been a red flag," said William D Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank. "Anything that makes troop transports more useable allows them to be applied to offensive purposes, even if you don`t add guns."
On the whole, US defence shipments to Libya under the Obama and Bush administrations have been tightly screened in recent years. US sales were dwarfed by a tide of arms sold by European allies. European Union nations approved sales of USD 470 million in weapons to Gaddafi’s military in 2009 alone — a rush of Italian military aircraft, Maltese small arms and British munitions, according to a January EU arms control report.
By comparison, the US peak was USD 46 million in approved defence sales in the final year of the Bush administration in 2008 — up from USD 5 million in Libyan defence sales the year before. The USD 46 million included USD 1 million in explosives and incendiary agents, and Toner said the State Department approved shipments of blasting cartridges used in oil exploration. Other US officials cited concerns that such explosive agents could be converted to crude battlefield munitions.
Bush-era officials said the slight increase in Libya defence sales was worth it in return for the dismantling of the rogue nation`s atomic weapons program. "We were careful and measured in what we allowed Gaddafi to get," said former ambassador Robert Joseph, who coordinated the 2003 nuclear agreement.
The Obama administration has lagged in providing figures for its recent defence sales, prompting pressure for more specifics from Congress as well as a request late last month for more details on Libyan licenses. One official familiar with defence issues said total military sales to Libya in the Obama administration`s first year in 2009 dropped to USD 17 million — but would have ballooned in 2010 had the USD 77 million armoured car deal gone through.
Instead, the transaction ran headlong into congressional worries about the Gaddafi regime`s plans for the armoured vehicles. The concerns came from both the Senate and House foreign relations committees, officials said.