You’ve got to get all the parties at the table. What would be a big mistake is to back one group over the other.
That’s what Lindsey Graham told Bloomberg in an interview following reports that Donald Trump (and, apparently, John Bolton) secretly threw their support behind Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.
What we know so far is that both Trump and Bolton implicitly (or, more likely, explicitly) gave Haftar America’s blessing to depose Libya’s UN-backed government during a pair of phone calls this month. Haftar once lived in the US and is/was an American intelligence asset.
Why would Trump and Bolton openly throw America’s support behind the strongman? Well, a simple read is that Trump is taking cues (here a euphemism for “orders”) from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who, you’ll note, this week secured the kind of expanded powers and extended term (he’ll now rule until at least 2030) that Trump would doubtlessly procure for himself if there were a way around the US constitution. Trump has variously praised el-Sisi in the same manner and with the same disconcerting deference he shows to other authoritarians.
In his meeting with Trump earlier this month, el-Sisi encouraged the White House to back Haftar who also enjoys the support of the UAE and the Saudis. Foreign Policy describes this as par for the course. To wit:
Another part of the pattern: a major Trump policy decision made in the absence of a coordinated National Security Council process, instead influenced by the president’s unscripted conversations with regional leaders. It was hardly a coincidence that Trump expressed his support for Haftar less than two weeks after speaking with Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed—all strong military and financial supporters of Haftar’s campaign. After all, Trump’s turnaround on Qatar [during the embargo] came within a few weeks of his lavish reception in Riyadh by Saudi King Salman and Mohammad bin Salman, and his policy reversal on Syria came one day after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking of Qatar and Turkey, they are of course opposed to Haftar – Libya is a key theatre for the proxy dispute between the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Qatar and Turkey on the other. Turkey was an ally of Doha’s during the 2017 Saudi-led embargo and Qatar returned the favor last fall when Erdogan sought financial assistance following the collapse of the lira.
The call between Trump and Haftar took place last Monday, but wasn’t revealed by the White House until four days later. Although the White House issued a read-out of the call on Friday, today’s reporting suggests Trump has already recognized Haftar as Libya’s de facto leader, which, if true, isn’t exactly trivial and goes well beyond what the administration has so far said publicly about the White House’s position. Notably, Tripoli was hit with drone strikes over the weekend.
“The US appears to have accepted the view from its chief Middle Eastern allies that Haftar’s assault can be seen as the act of a strong leader fighting jihadist militias in Tripoli, but many independent Libyan experts claim Haftar has no commitment to democracy, and himself deploys Salafist militia in his self-styled Libyan National Army”, The Guardian reminds you, adding that “Trump’s personal backing for Haftar appears to have undercut both the UN special envoy, Ghassan Salamé and the UK Foreign Office’s efforts to secure a UN security council resolution calling for a ceasefire.”
Bloomberg notes that Trump and Bolton “also undercut the US charge d’affairs in Libya, Peter Bodde, who has repeatedly warned Haftar against advancing on Tripoli” going so far as to tell him in February that “the capital was a red line”.
Politico describes Trump’s call with Haftar as something that “blindsided US diplomats and confused Arab and North African countries about where US policy actually stands.” Here, for instance, is what Mike Pompeo said on April 7, just two days before Trump’s meeting with el-Sisi:
We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.
One person for whom that isn’t “clear”, apparently, is Trump.
A bewildered State Department attempted to do some damage control earlier this week. Here are some highlights from a truly confusing statement:
[All] involved parties [should] return to the political process. We continue to believe that General Haftar can be an important part of a political solution. We recognize his significant role in fighting terrorism and securing oil resources. State Department officials have had regular meetings with a broad range of Libyan leaders, including Prime Minister [Fayez] al-Sarraj and General Haftar, as we press for stabilization in Tripoli and advance U.S. interests in Libya.
Complicating all of this further was the refusal (last week) on the part of the US to back the above-mentioned UN security council resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities. Unsurprisingly, Russia objected to the draft, which would have placed the blame on Haftar for recent violence.
“The US gave no reason for its position on the draft resolution, which would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya”, Reuters writes, before underscoring that “the US reluctance to support Security Council action is in contrast to Washington’s earlier public opposition to Haftar’s offensive.”
As you can see, this is an absolute mess and while it’s not difficult to discern Trump’s initial motives, what will be difficult is explaining how this administration managed to make Libya even more unstable than it already was – because that’s where this is headed.
Remember, this is all coming from an administration (Trump’s) which railed against US interventionism.