Mahmoud Jibril, the interim prime minister of the Libyan opposition government, is a desperate man with a fondness for medical metaphors. "If you're bleeding to death, you need a tourniquet, not another diagnosis," he told the diplomats, lobbyists and pro-democracy activists invited to a reception at the Libyan ambassador's elegant house in Washington, D.C., last Thursday.
This was the first official visit by Mr. Jibril and other representatives of the Transitional National Council (TNC) who are struggling to manage Libya's transition from 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship to a democratic future. The delegation left Washington over the weekend with lots of goodwill but without the "tourniquet" Mr. Jibril was seeking—access to $3 billion of the $32 billion in Libyan assets that the U.S. froze in February.
After almost two days of nonstop meetings between the Libyans and members of Congress, officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the White House issued a terse statement calling Mr. Jibril and the TNC he co-chairs "credible and legitimate." Privately, the White House also pledged to help speed legislation suggested by Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), and supported by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), to give the rebels access to some $180 million of Libyan funds.
But legislation takes time. And Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's reluctance to get more deeply involved in Libya—the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not attend Friday's meeting with the Libyans—does not bode well for quick action. Time is an all-too-precious commodity for the rebels, who say they are running out of money.
Ali Tarhouni, the interim government's finance minister, said that even if Mr. Kerry's relief package were approved, the money only would cover the cost of feeding and providing power to Libya's liberated areas for 10-12 days. "We really appreciate everything the U.S. is doing," Mr. Tarhouni told me. "But it doesn't solve my problem. I'm basically trying to run a war economy without resources. We're not asking for American taxpayer money," he said, "just access to our own frozen funds, or loans using them as collateral."
Mr. Tarhouni said he hoped that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates would provide some more interim relief. Support from both countries—which along with France, Italy and a few African states have recognized the TNC as Libya's legitimate government and sent fuel to the rebels—has been "outstanding," he said.
Although the delegation left Washington empty-handed, it made some progress, according to Libyan and American sources. The delegation's visit reminded America that while Washington dithers, Libyans continue to die. Mr. Jibril told me that, based on hospital estimates, more than 11,000 Libyans have already been killed in the 12 weeks of fighting. The United Nations says that more than 800,000 people have fled Libya and that 1.6 million inside the country need assistance.
The visit has also allayed some concern that the rebel leadership is infiltrated and unduly influenced by al Qaeda or its longtime affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) —a standard theme of Gadhafi's narrative about the TNC.
Messrs. Jibril and Tarhouni acknowledge there are LIFG members and some other militants' voices represented in the council. Since the TNC represents all anti-Gadhafi elements of the country, "they are included," Mr. Jibril says. But he insists they are not in leadership positions and will not determine foreign or domestic policy if and when Gadhafi is overthrown, if the TNC survives.
Mr. Jibril got his masters and a doctorate in strategic planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1985. Though he served from 2007-09 as the chair of the Gadhafi's National Economic Development Board and led the Libyan National Planning Council, Libya experts never considered him part of the dictator's inner circle.
Mr. Tarhouni's democratic credentials are more impressive. He was a university student in Libya decades ago when his antiregime activities landed him on a Gadhafi hit list and forced him to flee. An economics professor at the University of Washington, he abruptly left his family and students to join the Libyan uprising, apologizing to his students for his departure. "I told them I had been waiting 40 years for this moment. In fact, I had almost lost hope that I would ever live to see it," he said.
Both men express gratitude toward the U.S.—as well as their growing frustration—in vivid, colloquial English. Mr. Jibril, for instance, explaining why the rebels have been unwilling to declare themselves Libya's government, articulated his dilemma this way: If the TNC took such action, Gadhafi would accuse them of being a separatist movement. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't," he told an audience at the Brookings Institution on Thursday.
It is this legalistic never-never land that has complicated the TNC's effort to secure more concrete support from Washington. But that alone does not fully explain Washington's hesitation. Some in Congress and within the White House continue to warn of "mission creep" in Libya. What began, belatedly, as an effort to protect the population of Benghazi in eastern Libya has become a grueling stalemate. With no obvious vital strategic interests at stake in the vast, oil-rich land of 6.5 million, and with two other wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some American analysts warn ominously about the dangers of "imperial overreach."
The Obama administration has repeatedly called for Gadhafi to relinquish power, and it has been quietly searching for a country that will host him. The State Department has not permitted Gadhafi to replace his ambassadors in Washington and at the United Nations. Both have defected to the rebels. But the U.S. has not recognized the TNC as Libya's legitimate government either.
After their meetings in Washington, neither Mahmoud Jibril nor Ali Tarhouni seemed worried about tomorrow's War Powers Act deadline—which requires President Obama to end the use of force absent a Congressional decision to keep going. "The message we got is that this is not going to be a problem," Mr. Tarhouni said.
The administration "is not going to pull the plug on this engagement," says Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and professor of government at Dartmouth. "We may not know who will lead Libya after Gadhafi falls," he added, "but the TNC has emerged as a coherent force that is reaching out to a wide range of Libyans and thinking seriously about the future."