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In Libya,Washington wades into the political mess it helped to make

It's clear the U.S. is concerned about losing its influence amid a sea of proxy interests and a fledging interim government.

Analysis | Africa

The reality is that throughout the conflict in Libya, the U.S. has not had a clear vision over what it wants to achieve, or how it wants to achieve it.

The NATO intervention in 2011 was primarily rooted in a perception that something needed to be done rather than a clear vision as to what should be done. As Libya’s political factions fell out with one another, and the country descended into civil war, the United States moved to focus on immediate short term ‘objectives’ rather than long-term aims at resolving the political differences. In many regards, this may well have made sense to U.S. policymakers. An assessment of the parties of the conflict would have suggested that whatever the outcome, and whoever the winner, they would inevitably reach out to Washington for legitimacy and international recognition.

This meant that rather than take sides in the conflict, the U.S. instead partnered with various groups on opposing sides of the spectrum to secure specific aims. In 2016, Washington partnered with armed groups in Misrata to combat ISIS. In 2019, President Trump cited Haftar’s ‘significant role in fighting terrorism’

Both of these groups interpreted U.S. policy as a sign that they could viably secure support from Washington in any bid for power over Libya. The armed groups in Misrata therefore continued to undermine the Government of National Accord in Libya which it was nominally subject to, while Haftar proceeded to militarily seize territory in the East and move Westwards with impunity in the hope that a decisive victory would be recognised by U.S. policymakers in Washington, and therefore would be recognised internationally. 

While this policy began under President Obama, it appeared to continue under the Trump administration, which sat idly in 2019 for over a year as Haftar bombarded Tripoli in the hope of bringing about a military victory. Washington’s silence was seen as an offer of international recognition for Haftar’s control if he could deliver a decisive military victory and bring about much sought stability, irrespective of any democratic “price.” 

Turkey’s military intervention in January 2020 however created a dilemma for Washington. Not only did the intervention eliminate the option of a military victory, but Ankara subsequently lent legitimacy to increased Russian diplomatic attempts to create its own political track in a bid to monopolise the political process. GNA representatives began to visit Moscow while Turkey and Russia  even contemplated a joint ‘Libya Working Group’ aimed at facilitating a dialogue on mutual interests in the Libyan political process. Even U.S. ally Egyptian President AbdelFattah Al-Sisi, who was also reeling from Haftar’s spectacular military defeat and who had threatened to intervene directly to prevent an overreach in the Turkey-backed GNA counterattack, had begun to display a willingness to engage with Moscow’s diplomatic initiatives on Libya.

The unprecedented military balance between Libya’s West and East that had ironically been established by Turkey’s intervention in favour of the former, and Russia and Egypt’s intervention in favour of the latter, meant that an environment had now emerged where a military solution had become unviable. Libya’s warring factions therefore had little choice but to begin engaging politically.

This forced a scurrying of U.S. diplomatic activity. Stephanie Williams, who had taken over from Ghassen Salame in March 2020 after the latter decided to step down, was tasked with leading a reinvigorated UN-led political process, geared towards seizing the diplomatic initiative from the Russian-Turkish-Egyptian trio. This began in earnest in late October and early November. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was dispatched to Algiers in the first visit by a U.S. Defense Secretary in over 15 years, despite ongoing disgruntlement amongst Algerian policymakers over the ignominious manner in which Washington had dismissed their recommendation for the position of UN envoy to Libya. He also visited Tunis and Rabat on the same tour to discuss ‘security cooperation’

Where Washington had appeared apathetic to any prospective outcome of the Libyan conflict, it was now suddenly scrambling to at least prevent certain outcomes. 

It is in this context that there appears to be continuity in U.S. policy in recent times despite the change in administration. This policy is built on achieving two key objectives:

The first and primary objective is to prevent Russian entrenchment. This does not apply solely in Libya, but also regionally. Russia has succeeded in capitalizing on the opportunities presented in the crises in Syria and Libya to expand not only its military presence, but also its diplomatic clout. Moscow continues to dominate the international political process on Syria through the Astana processes and its tri-partite summits with Iran and Turkey, and has managed to a great extent to secure the buy-in of key powerbrokers Cairo, Ankara, and even Paris, in its efforts to create its own political track in Libya. In other words, Russia has succeeded in co-opting two NATO members into lending de facto legitimacy to its diplomatic initiatives that are primarily geared towards excluding and constraining U.S. interests.

The second, and perhaps more difficult objective, is to repair the dented image of the U.S. as the hegemon power and as the reliable ally of the regional political actors. However, instead of working with its regional allies, Washington seeks to do this by disciplining them for taking advantage of the political vacuum that emerged under the Trump administration to aggressively pursue their own aims and ambitions. This does not just apply to Turkey which signed a controversial maritime agreement with Tripoli, and which has secured vital military bases in Al-Watiya and Misrata, but also the UAE which has acted as an enabler for Russia in its relentless support for Haftar’s military bid and reported purchase of Russian arms to facilitate it.

The problem however is that the U.S. has already alienated multiple allies simultaneously, and risks alienating them further in its bid to forcefully reassert itself. President Biden has already made his disdain for Turkey clear in an interview with the New York Times prior to his election, but also in the      reappointment of Brett McGurk who is deeply resented by Ankara for his perceived support for the Kurdish groups in Syria. Moreover, where Turkey insists its military presence in Libya is legally justified, Washington continues to insist that that they leave as soon as possible. Where U.S. interests might be better served in working with Ankara against Moscow, the suggestion is that Biden will be more inclined to seek to supplant Turkey’s presence in Libya as part of a reasserting of U.S. power. This, however, will only serve to push Turkey further towards Russia in an awkward ‘marriage of convenience’ which continues to wield significant influence on the ground and which has much potential to spoil the political process that Washington is especially eager to see succeed. Despite being on opposite sides in Libya and Syria, Turkey and Russia have demonstrated a great capacity to cooperate on mutual interests. Moscow in particular, is keen to ensure this relationship continues as it seeks to weaken NATO.

On Egypt, President Biden has continued to alienate Cairo which believes that its concerns over the composition of a prospective government in Libya are being dismissed by Washington. These concerns are compounded by a sense among Egyptian policymakers that the Biden administration expects them to toe the line and work to facilitate U.S. interests, regardless as to how that might affect their own. 

The Biden administration is also likely to encounter problems in its coordination with Europe which is also deeply divided over Libya. Where Biden will focus on Russia and Turkey, President Macron is an advocate for cooperation with Moscow. Italy seeks to preserve relations with Turkey and avoid unnecessarily being pulled into any escalation. Europe generally is in the midst of a debate over the merits of relying on U.S. power as a means of facilitating its own aims.

It is in this context that it becomes clear that U.S. policy in Libya is not primarily geared towards achieving a democratic transition, identifying accountability, tackling of corruption, or the creation of a Libyan state with any agency. Rather the emphasis is first and foremost on impressing upon the local and international political actors in Libya the primacy of U.S. goals and interests. This was made abundantly clear when legitimate concerns over corruption in the voting process in the UN-led Libyan Political Dialogue Forum that emerged in the UN’s own report did not deter U.S. backing for the government. Where debate ensued over the ramification of the allegations for the legitimacy of the new interim government, and whether it should be scrapped altogether, the U.S. ambassador in Libya continued to impress upon the House of Representatives the necessity of voting for it. In other words, the U.S. made clear that under no circumstances was this new government to be rejected or brought down.

The new interim government secured the necessary votes from the House of Representatives, and Prime Minister AbdulHamid Debeiba has announced most of his government. The outgoing Prime Minister has surrendered the premiership peacefully. The new government is now tasked with leading the country into elections which are expected to take place no later than December 24, 2021. However, the road to elections is fraught with challenges, and questions remain over the ability of this government to assert itself on a country still deeply divided and where foreign forces show no sign of leaving anytime soon. 

A democratic transition may emerge as a by-product of U.S. policy. A Biden administration may well believe that elections can act as an effective way to challenge attempts by Ankara, Moscow, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo to carve out their spheres of influence. However, for the Biden administration, this transition is only relevant and useful in so far as it rectifies the failure of U.S. policy so far to rein in Russia’s expansion and the general undermining of U.S. power and influence in the region. 

It is for this reason that questions remain over whether elections will take place at the end of the year, or whether they will be delayed depending on the political, diplomatic, and military situation. U.S. policy in Libya is not about Libya. It is rather rooted in deep concerns in Washington that U.S. power is no longer perceived in the manner it once was, and the implications of such perceptions on wider U.S. influence and leverage. It is driven by a desire to impress upon its allies and the wider region that the U.S. is still the undisputed primary power and the primary guarantor of global order and security.

December 24, 2020: A soldier holds a Libyan flag in Martyrs Square at the celebration the 69th Anniversary of Libyan Independence in Tripoli. (Shutterstock/Hussein Ebbed)
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