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The trouble in Libya may be reminding American diplomats of the old advice to know your enemies. For many years the United States did not have an embassy in Libya, which was often an opponent of the United States. Ties were renewed only a few years ago.

And so with that relatively limited experience, the U.S. is scrambling to identify friends in Libya, people who could take over if Moammar Gadhafi loses power. The search is further complicated because Gadhafi has never tolerated opposition, keeping his opponents below the surface.

NPR's Jackie Northam has more.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt crumbled under the weight of widespread protests, the U.S. could take some comfort in knowing, and having contact with, the people and institutions that would temporarily fill the void. Libya is a whole different situation.

Relations between Washington and the Gadhafi regime have been turbulent over the decades, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation who recently returned from Libya.

Mr. FREDERIC WEHREY (Rand Corporation): You have to remember that relations began really in early 2009 with the opening of the embassy, and they've been quite incremental since then. And much of the evolution of the relationship has been held hostage to Gadhafi's whims.

NORTHAM: Wehrey says for the past four decades Libya has been an incredibly centralized state, all decisions had to run through Gadhafi. That made it difficult for the U.S. to get a sense of whom to engage beyond Gadhafi.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that U.S. embassy staff in Tripoli were only beginning to get a grasp of Libya's key players and their allegiances, says Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth and the author of the book "A History of Modern Libya." Vandewalle says this has hampered U.S. efforts to identify who may emerge as the next leader.

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Dartmouth College): I don't think the government, the U.S. government, at this point really has a very precise inkling of who is out there. And I just kind of hope that as some of these people come forward, you know, that we're picking the right ones. I think there are lots of opportunities here for, you know, betting on the wrong horse.

NORTHAM: Vandewalle says as Gadhafi's regime crumbles, some figures could present themselves as the country's savior - parts of his inner circle that have defected, tribal leaders, monarchists, even some charismatic local leaders in the cities now held by anti-government forces. Whether they have the political skills to form a governing coalition and the administrative experience to run a country is not clear.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NPR the Obama administration is very conscious of the uncertainly that lies beyond Gadhafi's regime.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): You really don't have anyone emerging. But there is an effort in the east around Benghazi to try to begin putting together what's called an executive council, and we'll be certainly along with others reaching out to them to see how we can help.

NORTHAM: Part of the problem facing the U.S. and its allies is that through his four decades in power, Gadhafi equated political opposition with treason.

Again, the Rand Corporation's Frederic Wehrey.

Mr. WEHREY: He quashed that quite successfully, the general institutions that are needed for normal governance, and especially in a democracy. I mean trade unions, civil society, municipal councils - these were all effectively, you know, abolished or non-existent.

NORTHAM: Dartmouth's Vandewalle says the U.S. could reach out beyond Libya's borders. There are more than 100,000 Libyan exiles living in the U.S., Britain, and other Western nations. Vandewalle says some left in the early 1970s, not long after Gadhafi came to power.

Mr. VANDEWALLE: The problem, of course, is that a lot of the figures, because they have been outside of the country for so long, I think no longer really carry either recognition among Libyans or legitimacy, because they've been gone for so long. So we could find some figures, but again, a very, very difficult task, I think.

NORTHAM: Vandewalle says the U.S. must strike a fine balance by trying to identify potential new leaders without appearing to be manipulating the situation. He says it's up to the Libyans to decide who will next lead their country, even if it's messy and violent in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Gadhafi's regime.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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