Steer Clear of Libya
For all its calamities and horrors, the civil war raging in Libya has made for some interesting headlines over the last few months. A recent story by The New York Times’ Declan Walsh documents an elaborate mission involving mercenaries bankrolled by an Australian businessman attempting to deliver helicopters to the rebel general and one-time CIA asset Khalifa Haftar. The general’s animated disappointment about the condition of the aircraft forced the mercenaries to escape on inflatable rafts to Malta. A few weeks later, Haftar’s forces bombed a cargo plane identical to the one the mercenaries used to ferry the helicopters. This time, the plane was loaded with munitions headed to Tripoli, home of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
This episode is symptomatic of the larger chaotic forces at play in Libya, namely, how foreign actors have managed to turn civil anarchy into an all-out proxy war. Turkey has provided military personnel and aid, brought in foreign fighters from Syria, and made extensive use of drones for air support in order to help the GNA turn the tide against a rebel coalition supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Russia’s involvement has been limited to the use of mercenaries and, in response to new battlefield gains by the GNA, warplanes sent in from Syria. Ostensibly partners from their collaboration in Syria, both Ankara and Moscow have refrained from directly targeting each other’s forces in Libya.
Western commentators like to believe that Putin is intent on becoming the region’s “kingmaker” or the new dominant power in the region. But one look at the states he has aligned himself reveals motivations that are far less grand and instead more indicative of Russia’s isolation from the West. His cultivation of the regimes in Iran and Syria and support for Haftar in Libya are meant to sow chaos and prop up antagonistic governments. By leveraging his influence over these regimes, Putin will be able to extract concessions from Europe where American support is lacking on issues such as migration or the paralyzed nuclear agreement with Iran. He would like nothing more than to split off the Continent from the U.S. security umbrella which leaders in Berlin, Paris, and London will never fully accept even if their diplomatic posturing says otherwise. In this, Putin is less likely to succeed than his detractors claim.
Nevertheless, the stability of North Africa is indeed a critical geopolitical issue for Europe. With millions of displaced peoples from Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, and Southwest Asia, European governments cannot turn a blind eye to chaos across the Mediterranean. It served as one of the primary departure points for those trying to find their way into Europe during the destabilizing 2015 migration crisis. Additionally, since competing French and Italian oil firms also play a significant role in the Libyan crude market, these countries have an economic interest in the outcome of the war. Italy has tried to play the role of a neutral mediator in order to preserve its share of the market should either side win. While France has thrown its weight behind Haftar, betting that he was in the best position to protect the oilfields in the east and quash extremist groups (which is something France is having a difficult time doing on its own in the Sahel), recent public statements calling for an “inclusive political solution” and decrying unilateral action outside of the UN’s diplomatic channels sing a different tune.
The Arab states similarly view Haftar as a stabilizing actor capable of stamping out Islamic extremism and protecting Libya’s oil industry. Yet, unlike the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s interest in Libya arises out of existential concerns over its own territorial security and regional clout. Not only does it need a stable, friendly state on its western border but an increase in Turkey’s ability to operate freely in the Mediterranean would inhibit Egypt’s pursuit of its own interests in the region. From Ankara’s perspective, gaining port access on the North African coastline and making inroads into its oil industry is a way to strengthen its “soft power” capabilities so as to better project Turkish influence in the region. Considering the dire state of the Turkish economy (especially its worsening currency crisis), there is added pressure to win the day in Libya.
Thus, it would appear that for the United States, Libya is too complicated and messy to take any great interest in. For those looking to see reduced American involvement in the Middle East, the Trump administration’s queasy impatience with another country’s civil war should be a welcome change of pace. So far, there has been no definitive action taken to affect the conflict in any meaningful way.
While officially backing the GNA, at the private urging of Egyptian and Emirati leaders, President Trump and members of his administration have also shown a level of tolerance for the rebel general. When Haftar phoned the White House to gain clearance for a 2019 offensive against Tripoli, hawkish former national security advisor John Bolton “did not say no”. And while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a peace conference in January with other European leaders to help negotiate a ceasefire, last week he called on the GNA to halt its offensive against Haftar’s forces and settle for a political compromise. Neither the president nor members of his cabinet have real inclinations as to who to support. The reality is that there are no right answers in Libya.
To start, there are no existential security threats. Ghaddafi’s belligerent posturing in the Mediterranean was a hassle for American policymakers in the 1980s but he was never more than a thorn in the side of a global superpower. Islamic extremism is no more prevalent in Libya as it is in the Sahel or East Africa. These groups often have transnational backers like the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda but are mostly restricted to regional jihad. This isn’t to say that the U.S. shouldn’t keep an eye on them but committing significant levels of blood and treasure in these countries is not a cost-effective way to contain what are essentially local threats.
More important though is that Libya is an intensely tribalized country politically incapable of achieving long-term stability under a unitary, centralized system of power. The Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter argued this point last month:
“Libya is a classic example of an artificial country that a European colonial power created out of disparate components… [These] regions had very little common history or culture, but when the victorious World War II Allies stripped Rome of its colonial possessions, the United Nations preserved the defective handiwork. The principal centers of political and economic influence were Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. The southern Fezzan region was more sparsely populated—largely by the Tuareg and Tebu tribes that sought to maintain an entirely independent existence.”
As Carpenter later noted, even during the relatively stable 40-year autocratic rule of Muammar Ghaddafi there were frequent tribal uprisings in the eastern half of the country. Like many post-colonial states, Libya was created despite its inhabitants not having a shared national culture, sense of mutual loyalty, or history of unification against outside threats.
It isn’t like the United States hasn’t had experience with these incompatible compositions before. One reason rebuilding efforts quickly stalled in Iraq was that long-standing grievances between the minority Sunni and majority Shiite populations exploded when the ensuing power vacuum was left unfilled. Having been in power for over four decades, the minority Sunnis suddenly found themselves persecuted by Shiite militias. The political climate was ripe for foreign extremists, both Sunni and Shiite, who began a long-running insurgency against American forces that eventually culminated in the rise of the ISIS caliphate. Libya may not be divided along religious lines but its regional and tribal balkanization presents similar pitfalls nonetheless. In fact, there is a strong possibility that any political resolution between the GNA and Haftar may leave Libya divided along east/west lines.
Unfortunately, when the Obama administration organized an international coalition to conduct an air war against Ghaddafi’s regime in 2011, hubris clouded any full appreciation for these factors.
In the midst of the Arab Spring, Ghaddafi had been accused by the United Nations of killing democratic protestors en masse and planning on slaughtering more civilians in Benghazi. Yet, even at the time, the figures of independent observers tracking the conflict told a different story. As academic Alan Kuperman explained in a thorough 2015 Foreign Affairs article, anecdotal reports of Ghaddafi killing tens of thousands of protestors were hyperinflated by Libyan rebels pleading for Western support through international media outlets. Human Rights Watch, an international non-profit that was highly critical of the Ghaddafi government, had the total casualty count (combatants and civilians) at just under 1,000. Furthermore, there were no immediate signs that Ghaddafi was planning to attack civilians as his troops had only used force to defend government buildings under siege and recapture cities held by rebel militias.
But when addressing the American people President Obama asserted that the United States had a moral obligation to uphold its values abroad by promoting “our common humanity and common security” even when its “safety is not directly threatened”. This was to be an internationally-supported exercise in democracy promotion. In March NATO warplanes began to police the skies and bomb Libyan government forces. By October, with his government dissolved, Gaddafi was captured and executed by a rebel militia. Predictably, this regime change effort failed to yield a successor able to consolidate power and effectively assert control over the entire country. At times resembling a failed state, the Libyan people have endured anarchy and untold suffering since.
Crusader campaigns to remake the world in your image are never a productive way to advance one’s national interests. It is even less productive when you do it in a country with no real bearing on policy in the region and no hope for long-term success. When coupled with the prospect of engaging other foreign powers on the battlefield, some of whom are allies, the costs significantly outweigh any possible benefits. Having already failed in the first attempt at regime interference, experience should serve as a warning to those who may be tempted to influence the outcome through material involvement. This time around, let the Europeans, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab states figure this one out. The bottom line is that the Libyan civil war is just another “blood and sand” conflict that the United States would do well to stay away from.