U.S. Closes Embassy In Libya Amid Violent Clashes In Capital

Security in Libya has deteriorated badly enough that the U.S. shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday. NPR's Arun Rath talks to former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill about the situation.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The U.S. Embassy in Libya has been shut down. The decision came yesterday after clashes among arrival militias in the capital Tripoli. Traveling in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The United States have decided that because of the freewheeling militia violence that is taking place in Tripoli, it presents a very real risk to our personnel.

RATH: For more on the implications of the temporary closure, we reached out to Christopher Hill, a four-time U.S. ambassador who's last post was ambassador to Iraq until 2010. Thanks for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Pleasure.

RATH: So the situation in Libya has been unstable for quite a while now. Can you describe how it deteriorated this weekend?

HILL: Well, of course, there has been these militia clashes. These are militias who actually were the government had tried to bring into a concept of Libyan armed forces because they really never created the Army. And the militias never agreed to kind of work together. It seems, as Secretary Kerry described it, very freewheeling. And it was unclear what kind of work the Embassy could be doing. And I think the decision was made to shut down operations.

RATH: The State Department has characterized this as a temporary withdrawal of staff. Given the situation you described, though, how soon do you think the Embassy could reopen?

HILL: When you evacuate an embassy and take your last marine out of there and your ambassador out of there, it's a pretty big step. It follows other steps, usually start with something called authorized departure where if people want to leave, they can leave. Then you go to ordered departure. And so by the time you get to evacuation, you have essentially destroyed all sensitive equipment in the Embassy, you've burned everything, every document in the Embassy - very big step. So, yes, of course, I think the United States would like to be back there when the security situation improves.

RATH: Along with that, though, do you think there's also some extra precaution given the experience in Benghazi in 2012 when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed?

HILL: Very understandable that people connect those dots. But I really think this was done by the book. I mean, I cannot imagine any other embassy anywhere in the world where if you're having mortar fire exchanged just a couple of blocks from the embassy that you wouldn't want to close the place down. So I really don't think it was an abundance of caution or extra caution. I think it was kind of by the book and what'd you do in any similar circumstance.

RATH: Given what's happening in Libya, do think, looking back now, it was a mistake to throw our weight behind overthrowing Gaddafi?

HILL: Well, Gaddafi was a murderous buffoon who I think was doing a lot of damage to that country. I can't regret the fact that he was overthrown. I can certainly regret, however, the notion that once he was overthrown, it was kind of given over to the Libyans to sort out. I think the murder of Gaddafi down in the streets the way it was done was pretty awful. And I think it's spoke to the fact that the problems of that country may have been a little deeper than the problems of Mr. Gaddafi. And maybe we in the international community could have ramped the thing up. I mean, when you take part in an effort at regime change, you really are going to have to take part in an effort of rebuilding the state. And my sense is there was an inadequate effort in the latter part.

RATH: That's former U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill who is dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Thanks so much for joining us.

HILL: Thank you.

RATH: You're listening to NPR News.

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