Trump Does Whatever the Saudis and Emiratis Want
Philip Gordon and Andrew Miller make a very thorough case that Trump’s destructive embrace of Haftar won’t do Libya or the U.S. any good:
Nor does Haftar possess military forces capable of imposing stability. His track record on the battlefield is mixed at best, and his past offensives have been heavily dependent on external military assistance, including in the form of airstrikes from the United Arab Emirates. His Libyan National Army is a grab bag of rival militia groups working together only out of expediency, and Tripoli has seen few signs of the defections that have eased Haftar’s entry elsewhere in the country. His army’s opponents, moreover, including the highly capable Mistratan militias, can count on getting more funding and arms from Turkey and Qatar in response to the Egypt and Gulf-backed intervention. In what could be a preview of the Tripoli campaign, it took Haftar three years to seize full control of Benghazi, another populous, urban city. Even if the Libyan National Army somehow were to seize Tripoli, after what would surely be a bloody battle, the most likely result would be a prolonged insurgency that would cause an increased number of refugees to flee their homes for both neighboring countries and Europe—which would further fan the flames of European populism.
Gordon and Miller are right that Haftar is not going to stabilize Libya, and his attack on Tripoli seems guaranteed to prolong and intensify the conflict to the detriment of Libya and its neighbors. As they explain, backing Haftar doesn’t make sense in terms of aiding U.S. counterterrorism efforts or ensuring the flow of Libyan oil, but I imagine that Trump’s authoritarian chums in the region have taken advantage of his ignorance to tell him the opposite. Just as he doesn’t know anything about Yemen except what the Saudis, Emiratis, and his hard-line advisers tell him, much the same is true for Libya (and everywhere else in the region). Trump probably sees support for Haftar as simply doing a favor for authoritarian clients in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, and in typical Trumpian fashion he doesn’t have anything to show for doing their bidding.
Trump’s endorsement of the Tripoli attack is another piece of evidence that there is no functioning national security policy process beyond “whatever bad ideas Bolton has at the moment.” The full dysfunction of Trump’s foreign policy is on display, and the latest example has been a shock even to many observers that understood how chaotic and disorganized the administration is:
Trump urging Haftar to take Tripoli and topple the UN- (and US-) backed government is a shocking story, even by Trump’s foreign policy standards: https://t.co/nnoWKYXvaI
— Frederick Deknatel (@freddydeknatel) April 25, 2019
One can agree or disagree about Trump’s foreign policy decisions. But the way he’s actually going about doing foreign policy betrays a breathtaking incompetence. A nuclear-armed clown show, this. https://t.co/aMl21iZrKk
— Damir Marusic (@dmarusic) April 24, 2019
Once again, the president has cut off his own officials at the knees and overturned U.S. policy on a whim, and he has left those officials scrambling to contain the fallout from a decision that amounts to another inexplicable giveaway to the region’s despots. Rouala Khalaf sees Trump’s support for Haftar as part of a pattern of doing whatever the Saudis and Emiratis want:
In the Middle East, Mr Trump appears to be in the thrall of the two Arab powers that have been reshaping the region in their image since the 2011 uprisings toppled some of their autocratic friends. Their advice holds greater sway at the White House than that of the US foreign policy establishment.
This new Middle Eastern order is led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (a smaller Gulf state that has been punching well above its weight). It is defined by hostility towards Iran, antagonism towards Qatar and the Islamists it sympathises with, and the restoration of autocracy — by force if necessary.
And yet, the consequences of the belligerence of the two Gulf states have been disastrous. True, the Tripoli administration is sustained by militias and the prospects of success of the UN plan are slim. But there is no military solution either. The outcome of Gen Haftar’s offensive is likely to be calamitous.
I agree with all of this, and I have said something similar before. The degree to which the Trump administration as a whole and the president personally are captive to the preferences of the Saudi and Emirati governments is extraordinary. Previous administrations have certainly indulged these governments, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there has never been a president as beholden and solicitous to these clients as Trump is. He really does whatever the Saudis and Emiratis want without any regard for the consequences for the U.S. or anyone else. That is a disaster for U.S. foreign policy on many fronts, but it also cries out for more Congressional oversight and scrutiny to determine why exactly it is happening. Whatever the reason for it, there is no question that the president’s abject subservience to the Saudis and Emiratis harms U.S. interests and regional stability from Libya to Yemen.