Home/Daniel Larison/Pulling Libya Back from the Brink

Pulling Libya Back from the Brink

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Source: МИД России/Flickr

Frederic Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher explain what the U.S. can do to prevent conditions in Libya from deteriorating further:

By staving off foreign interference, safeguarding Libya’s oil resources, and wielding punitive measures, the United States could begin to steer Libya’s antagonists toward a political process. Such a process, however, cannot include Haftar and his inner circle. For too long, the warlord has cynically exploited negotiations as a means toward his ultimate end of seizing power. Outside powers, believing that he could be tamed, have rewarded his territorial conquests with political clout.

To end this vicious cycle, the United States must convince Haftar’s Arab backers to remove him from the scene. They are wedded not to the man himself but to his promise to advance their interests.

The authors are very knowledgeable about Libya, and their proposal to help pull the country back from the brink makes a great deal of sense. They rightly recognize that Haftar is a major part of Libya’s problems and not the answer to them, and following his attack on the capital more Libyans have been reaching the same conclusion. The U.S. probably could prevail on Haftar’s Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian patrons to pull the plug on their support for him, but that would require a president who wasn’t almost completely beholden to those same patrons.

The U.S. position regarding Libya’s conflict has been hopelessly muddled since Trump seemed to throw his support behind Haftar and the assault on Tripoli. It is very much like the Qatar crisis in that the administration is divided against itself on what U.S. policy really is. Today, the split is between U.S. officials that have been trying to salvage the situation and a president who backs the reckless aggressor. Far from reining in Haftar or his patrons, the president has appeared to give them a green light to do what they want. It’s not clear how that can be changed short of getting Trump to turn on the despotic clients that he has been indulging for more than two years.

Congress can pick up some of the slack by publicizing violations of the arms embargo. Wehrey and Lacher recommend this:

But in the absence of a clear position from the executive branch, the most effective action may come from Congress. Specifically, Congress should hold public hearings that would require U.S. government agencies, including the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence services, to disclose evidence that regional states are violating the UN embargo. Congress can also authorize sanctions against foreign companies that facilitate these violations.

Once again, it falls to Congress to do what the president won’t do. Just as they have been fighting for years to change our abysmal Yemen policy in the face of determined administration resistance, they will have to do the same for Libya policy. There is some evidence that the Senate is starting to do that, but there will need to be more action from Congress than letters expressing concern if they are to keep Libya from falling deeper into the throes of civil war.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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