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The Boston Globe

Politics

More aid needed in Libya, John Kerry says

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in his office at the State Department.

Jay Premack for The Boston Globe

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in his office at the State Department.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry is warning that the United States and its allies should be doing more to stabilize Libya, saying that security remains a challenge in a country where nearly two years ago the US mission in Benghazi was attacked and four Americans were killed.

In an interview with the Globe, Kerry questioned whether the United States was marshaling the resources needed to address the challenges in places like Libya, a country on the verge of a civil war three years after US-led airstrikes helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Khadafy.

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“In Libya, we need to be able to, frankly, do more than we’re doing,” said Kerry, who has been subpoenaed to testify before Congress next week about the 2012 Benghazi attack. “We want to do more than we’re doing, but we have limits. Just plain, physical capacity limits, expense, the numbers of people it takes to provide security. Security is a huge issue.”

Kerry has been working with a group of allied countries to provide more help in Libya — including training Libyan security forces — but tight resources, weak political support for overseas ventures, and a volatile situation on the ground limit how much the United States can do.

“Every day I’m waking up and dealing with evaluations of our ‘x’ number of threat posts and making judgments about the numbers of people we have there versus the mission — we’re constantly balancing that,” Kerry said. “And resources would make a huge difference, and we’re not exactly in a resource-rich environment right now for these kinds of things.”

Kerry did not specify exactly what types of resources he thought were needed, and whether that meant more embassy security, humanitarian assistance, or other foreign aid.

More broadly, the State Department has been pushing Congress to provide more funding for security of US embassies around the world, but Congress for years has not authorized the full amount.

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In Fiscal Year 2013, for example, the department requested $4.9 billion but received $4.4 billion. The administration often does not receive its full request, but the gulf between what it asks for and what it receives from Congress has grown wider in recent years, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Kerry’s comments, made during an interview at the State Department last week, come as Libya has grown increasingly unstable. Saudi Arabia on Monday shut down its embassy and evacuated its diplomats. The US military is reportedly sending more aircraft to Italy in case they need to evacuate the US Embassy in Tripoli. Fighting in Libya escalated on Sunday, when armed militiamen stormed Parliament and later called on the government to hand over power to the country’s top judges. Libya’s central government announced elections in June, which some are hoping could help defuse the tensions.

The violent episodes are among the worst since 2011, when longtime leader Khadafy was overthrown and killed.

There are a range of steps that could be taken with more resources, including training police and military forces, helping build a civilian government, and disarming militias. Given the current volatility in Libya, adding more personnel would also require more security.

“Both from a human resources and financial resources perspective, you have a starved State Department in terms of that kind of assistance — and a pretty dicey environment on the ground,” said Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy during Obama’s first term who now leads the Center for a New American Security. “That’s the combination that makes it very hard to make progress.”

Top Republicans agree with Kerry that stabilizing the country is vitally important, and they say they could be open to providing more funding.

“If the existing State Department infrastructure is lacking when it comes to trying to stabilize Libya, I would be in the camp of providing more resources if you showed me a plan,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in an interview. “If I were John, that’s what I would do. Because Libya is very close to becoming a failed state, if not already a failed state. And that’s a shame.

“I don’t know if you could secure our people if you had a battalion of Marines around it right now,” he added. “I’m very worried about the security environment, because the country is coming apart.”

Most of the discussion on Capitol Hill has been related to the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, where a US mission was attacked and four Americans were killed. The topic has become a bitterly partisan one. House Speaker John Boehner has formed a select committee to further investigate the attacks. House Democrats, who had considered boycotting the investigation, appointed five members to the panel on Wednesday.

In addition, Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, initially subpoenaed Kerry to testify on Wednesday. With Kerry traveling to Mexico, Issa lifted the subpoena. There were negotiations with the State Department about a different date and, possibly, a different official to testify.

But last week, Issa issued a new subpoena for Kerry to testify May 29, complaining that the State Department had backtracked.

It has put Kerry at the center of a conflict that Republicans have seized upon over the past two years: whether the attacks in Benghazi could have been prevented — and whether the Obama administration was misleading about the reasons for the attack.

Democrats have said that numerous investigations have not turned up any significant wrongdoing, while Republicans continue to search for evidence that would damage Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, politically. Clinton was secretary of state when the US ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the Benghazi mission on Sept. 11, 2012.

Just before he was sworn in as secretary of state 15 months ago, Kerry told the Globe in an interview that embassy security and Benghazi were among the top issues he wanted to tackle early in his tenure.

Last week, Kerry met with various foreign ministers in London to discuss better support for Libya through the international community, partly through training efforts so that Libyan security forces are better equipped to fight various militia groups.

State Department aides emphasized that Kerry was not blaming Congress. But in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, several reports concluded that Congress needed to do more.

“Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives,” concluded a review headed by former US ambassador Thomas Pickering.

In his recent interview with the Globe, Kerry expressed his concerns about Libya in the context of his broader view that the United States is becoming more isolationist. He named several regions where young people are influenced by radical Islamists, where the United States could have a more forceful role in promoting education. One of the reasons, Kerry said, was that financial resources are tight.

“After World War II, obviously, we were greatly engaged in that kind of building and development project,” he said. “Today we’re not. So there are things we ought to be able to do that we’re very hard-pressed to do.”

He said that he had discussed the topic with President Obama, and that it is something the administration is trying to address.

“I really believe we could be doing more of those kinds of things and making ourselves safer,” he said. “American security would be better, our leadership would be perceived as being more tangible, and we’d be better off because of it. But when we’re in a frozen budget and everything else, it’s very difficult.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.

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