Great-Power Competition Is Coming to Africa
The United States Needs to Think Regionally to Win
On July 25, at peace talks in Paris convened by French President Emmanuel Macron, the leaders of Libya’s two main factions—Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army, based near the eastern city of Benghazi—verbally agreed to a cease-fire and national elections, to be held “as soon as possible.” The deal has generated positive headlines and served as an early diplomatic achievement for the young French president. But by including Haftar in the talks—despite UN, EU, and NATO backing of the GNA—France is helping transform him from a rogue warlord into a legitimate political actor, thereby encouraging his plans to conquer and rule the country as a whole. The Paris summit is thus unlikely to lead to a near-term solution to the country’s civil war.
Macron’s diplomatic initiative, whose tone and format favored Haftar, is consistent with France’s previous actions in Libya over recent years. Since early 2015, France has assisted Haftar’s coalition by deploying advisers, clandestine operatives, and special forces to eastern Libya while offering little to the GNA. In February, Haftar told a French newspaper that France supports his government “morally and from a security point of view.” (France publicly acknowledged this military support in July 2016, after three French special-forces soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash near Benghazi.)
Haftar’s main champion in Paris is Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. From 2012 to 2017, Le Drian served as minister of defense for President François Hollande. In that position, he was instrumental in consolidating a shift, begun under Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, away from the restrained foreign policy of President Jacques Chirac (1995–2007) to France’s more assertive and interventionist stance in recent years. When it comes to Africa and the Middle East, Paris has come a long way from the “freedom fries” dovishness of the mid-2000s.
France’s newly ascendant hawks are divided into two contending camps. The first—exemplified by Sarkozy and, in the early years of his presidency, Hollande—advocates liberal-democracy promotion and has an inclination toward regime change. Hollande, for instance, never publicly questioned Sarkozy’s decision to topple Qaddafi in 2011, and was an early advocate for Western intervention against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The second group is more skeptical and (in its own view) pragmatic. It privileges stability in Africa and the Middle East and favors pursuing French national interests, militarily confronting jihadism, and waging an ideological campaign against political Islam abroad.
Le Drian falls into this second camp, which appears to have found a champion in Macron, who denounced democracy promotion as “a form of neoconservatism imported from abroad.” Le Drian’s oft-praised stint as Minister of Defense was largely defined by France’s January 2013 intervention against jihadist groups in northern Mali—a tactical (albeit strategically incomplete) success that boosted the reputation of his security-first approach. And since January 2015, a series of devastating terror attacks on French soil have traumatized the public, creating an environment in which France’s policy could begin to ignore human-rights concerns and democratic ideals without eliciting too much outcry at home.
This shift away from idealist interventionism has suited Le Drian, who since 2013 has successfully pushed for France to beef up its support for several repressive governments, including those of Chad’s Idriss Déby and the Republic of the Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso. It has also made it easier for France to pursue its short-term commercial objectives, as demonstrated by its tighter support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In 2015–2016, Egypt purchased 24 Rafale fighter jets, two Mistral assault ships, one frigate, and 5.2 billion euros’ worth of missiles from France. Overall French arms sales reached 18 billion euros in 2015 and 14 billion euros last year—annual figures almost three times higher than the average under Sarkozy. In September 2015, Le Drian further distanced himself from humanitarian regime change by declaring that President Assad is only the enemy of the Syrian people—not of the international community. (Macron would use the same phrase one month after becoming president.)
France is helping transform Haftar from a rogue warlord into a legitimate political actor.
Indeed, over the last five years France has developed stronger security ties with Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Jordan, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It is engaged militarily against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria while going to great lengths to cultivate relations with Saudi Arabia by tacitly supporting the war in Yemen, taking a tough stance on the enforcement of the Iran nuclear deal, and even awarding a Legion of Honor medal last year to then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. France has also strengthened relations with the United Arab Emirates, where it has had a military base since 2009.
From Morocco to Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, and beyond, a wide area of French influence is tentatively emerging in Africa and the Middle East. Within this regional framework, a Libya ruled by Haftar, or someone with a similar ideology, appears to be a logical, almost self-evident objective to pursue. And since Macron has apparently adopted Le Drian’s approach, the war crime accusations leveled at Haftar—as well as his proclivity for non-secular, illiberal, militarized governance—are unlikely to be major concerns for Paris.
In addition to France’s domestic politics, international winds have shifted in favor of Haftar. The marshal and his Libyan National Army—propped up by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Russia—are a good fit for the security paradigm laid out by Saudi Arabia and the United States at the Riyadh Summit in May, which stresses counterterrorism and opposition to Islamism at the expense of democracy and human rights. Ahead of the July talks in Paris, Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump told the press that they “share the same intentions regarding Libya,” meaning that Washington had given Paris the green light to take the lead in the country.
Although the United States under President Barack Obama was a strong supporter of the GNA, the Trump administration has stepped back from its involvement in Libya—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for instance, recently announced he would be eliminating the U.S. special envoy position for the embattled North African country. Washington’s current priority is to prevent jihadist groups such as ISIS from gaining a foothold in the country. But apart from that limited mission—which is likely to be supported by a small number of U.S. Special Forces—the United States is now content to let its close allies tackle Libya the way they see fit.
In practice, Washington’s shift from supporting the GNA to becoming less engaged is a boon for Haftar. For instance, after ISIS claimed responsibility for a May 26 attack on Coptic Christians in Minya, Egypt, Cairo used the attack as a pretext for bombing raids in Libya that targeted opponents of Haftar unconnected to ISIS. The United States remained silent, while Le Drian publicly expressed his support for Egypt’s actions. And France has refrained from criticizing the UAE for violating international law by delivering weapons to Haftar and operating an air base in eastern Libya.
Paris insists that it is committed to upholding the UN-backed Libyan political agreement while recommending that it be amended to make it “more inclusive.” Signed in Skhirat in 2015, and due to expire in December, this agreement rules out a military solution and emphasizes the need for civilian control of the armed forces. It also calls for the political dialogue to include as many of Libya’s rival factions as possible, since a failure to do so could lead to more violence down the road. Paris’ rhetorical support of the UN agreement, however, is meaningless compared to the reality of its actions. For instance, France failed to include several Libyan factions in the July peace talks (although Le Drian, in an attempt to rectify the slight, met earlier this month with moderate figures in the coastal city of Misrata). Macron, moreover, made no demands on Haftar while welcoming him as a statesman on an equal footing with Sarraj and recognized the “military legitimacy” of his actions.
France’s diplomatic embrace, which cannot be easily walked back, has made Haftar more acceptable on the international stage and emboldened his 40-month-old military campaign. It echoes the actions of the Emiratis, who, when they hosted Serraj and Haftar in May, paid little heed to the UN, presented Haftar as a statesman, and excluded several of his political opponents. Both Abu Dhabi and Paris have also encouraged Libyan elections in spring 2018, a prospect that can easily be used to evade genuine dialogue, as factions seeking to avoid a compromise can point to the upcoming elections as an event that will resolve Libya’s divisions all at once. The country’s recent history, however, suggests that this is impossible.
One reason why the conflict in Libya has dragged on for six and a half years is the disjointed, partisan nature of foreign interference. Only a world power with immense influence and leverage could help stabilize the international contest over the outcome of Libya’s civil war. France, however, does not possess such clout or stamina, and it has shown no desire to avoid partisanship. Paris’ increasingly one-sided support of Haftar will only add to the thick muddle of foreign interference in the Libyan conflict. The move is unlikely to help bring Libya any closer to peace.