Getting grumpy over the administration’s Libya policy is a
There is no nostalgia for President Barack Obama’s “lead
from behind” policy that left the country in ruins, an American compound in
flames, and a U.S. ambassador and other brave Americans dead.
But let’s be honest, Trump hasn’t done much better at making
things better. This is not just about grading presidents. There are good
reasons to get U.S. policy for Libya right.
Why We Care
Trump gets an “A” for his instincts on the Middle East.
This region is strategically important to the United States.
That said, the U.S. is not the region’s babysitter. What is
needed is sustainable regional security solutions that deal with the twin great
dangers: the destabilizing actions of Iran and organized campaigns by
transnational Islamist terrorists.
That’s crucial for the stability of the region and to create
the conditions for the flourishing of better governance and economic freedom, essential
developments needed to add a shot of prosperity to the stability
The right security architecture for the region builds on a
backbone of productive bilateral relationships between the U.S. and key
nations. Not all of these states are big power brokers.
In geopolitical architecture, small states matter
These bilateral relations don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be friction free. They just have to be durable.
The backbone starts with Turkey and Iraq, states of the Gulf
Cooperation Council, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia are not only part of the Greater
Middle East, they are also the firebreak that prevents the security challenges
of North Africa and the Sahel from flowing north into the Middle East, the
Mediterranean, and Europe.
Libya is a lynchpin state.
The fate of Libya is not a vital U.S. interest, but the U.S.
task of building the backbone is just much easier with a stable and secure
Libya. So too is the challenge of keeping the problems of North Africa and the
Greater Middle East from being a problem for Europe (another strategically
important region for the U.S.).
The Mess That is
There is an officially recognized government in Libya, the
Government of National Accord, or the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
The problem is, it doesn’t govern all the country and
rightly comes under criticism for a host of reasons.
Meanwhile, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar commands the Libyan
National Army (LNA), which is at odds with the GNA and recently launched
military operations to oust the government from Tripoli, the capital. No
military or political force in Libya has the capacity to take over the whole
Meanwhile, there are a number of external parties, all vying
to protect their interests and prop up one faction or another. The most
influential players include Italy, France, Egypt, UAE, and Turkey.
There is also meddling from Russia and others.
Ghassan Salamé, the Special Representative of the
Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, is responsible
for sorting this mess out. Given that he works for the U.N., you can imagine
how that is going.
For its part until now the U.S. has largely outsourced the
hot mess to others.
The president recently
took a call from Hafter. There are rumors Hafter intends to visit the U.S.
Friends of Hafter are lobbying the administration to support him.
That is extremely unlikely to happen.
Hafter doesn’t have the capacity or international support to
succeed with a winner-take-all strategy.
It makes no sense for the U.S. to waste manpower, treasure,
and American prestige and credibility to win Libya for him. Further, the last
thing Libya needs is yet another strongman.
AWOL on the Potomac
Other than confuse everyone on U.S. policy after his happy chat
with Hafter, the direction of U.S. policy for Libya remains a big question
The U.S. can make a huge difference–and it doesn’t require
sending the 82nd Airborne Division or writing a big check.
The U.S. has the heft and relationships with the important
players to get them to act in concert in Libya.
Trump should lean on them to lean on their Libyan clients and
press for a genuine political agreement to hold everybody accountable. This
would also lead an effort to limit the damaging effect of the crisis on
neighboring states such as Tunisia.
If Trump would just take this step he would lift his grade
from an “F” to a “B+.” More important, he would greatly advance the cause of
America’s interests in the Middle East.
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