The American ambassador to Tripoli has been recalled for consultations at the US State Department and may not be allowed to return to his post due to comments about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that he included in a classified cable made public by WikiLeaks late last year.
While US officials have spoken in general terms before about the potential damage done to America's diplomatic operations by the cascade of supposedly secret cables unleashed by the whistle-blowing website, a decision not to send the envoy, Gene Cretz, back to his embassy in Libya would offer a first concrete example.
While no formal protest has been lodged, Tripoli has voiced concern to Washington about the contents of a missive sent by Mr Cretz to Washington in September 2009 ahead of Colonel Gaddafi arriving in New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It was entitled A Glimpse into Libyan Leader Gaddafi's Eccentricities.
Known to be prickly about anything said in connection with their leader that implies disrespect, the Libyan camp might have taken umbrage at Mr Cretz's reference to Colonel Gaddafi purportedly relying heavily on a Ukrainian nurse described as a "voluptuous blonde". Or perhaps it was the news that Gaddafi, who took control of Libya in 1969, hates flying over water and high hotel floors, but loves flamenco.
In any event, the surfacing of the cable in The New York Times, courtesy of WikiLeaks, has presented the State Department and its chief, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a dilemma. Its officials stress that there is no question of anyone seeking to punish Mr Cretz and insist that it remains crucial that envoys abroad remain candid in offering their (private) assessments of foreign partners.
On the other hand, the affair is threatening unnecessarily to further tangle what is already a deeply complicated, but also singularly important, relationship between Washington and Tripoli.
Nominated for the job by President George Bush in 2007, Mr Cretz became the first fully-fledged US ambassador to take residence in Tripoli in 36 years. He went there after a period of almost dizzying readjustment between the two countries. Washington agreed to restore full relations after Libya agreed in 2003 to renounce weapons of mass destruction and to pay compensation for past acts of state-sponsored terrorism including the Lockerbie bombing.
For the new détente to be hurt by a Cretz cable is the last thing the US wants. He reported that Gaddafi, aside from depending upon the Ukrainian nurse, "also appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing". The cable also noted that Gaddafi "has been described as both mercurial and eccentric, and our recent first-hand experiences with him and his office, primarily in preparation for his UNGA trip, demonstrated the truth of both characterisations".
The ambassador also described Gaddafi as "a hypochondriac", who insists that all examinations and procedures conducted on him are filmed so that they can be reviewed by other doctors he feels he can trust. State Department spokesman, P J Crowley, said: "We have an improving relationship with Libya... a complex relationship and the ambassador is here to reflect on both where we stand in that relationship and his role as a part of that."Reuse content