How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
With one act, the administration of Donald Trump has made two Middle East conflicts harder to resolve. By blocking Salam Fayyad, a respected former Palestinian prime minister, from becoming the United Nation’s new special envoy to Libya, Trump’s team undermined the UN’s efforts to solve the crisis in Libya, kept a uniquely qualified candidate from taking on a role in which he might have had a real impact, and prevented the reemergence of a moderate Palestinian leader who could potentially play a major role in a future peace deal between Israel and Palestine.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced his decision to appoint Fayyad as envoy to Libya on February 9, after coordinating that decision with the members of the UN Security Council, including the United States. Then came the surprising statement released by the United States’ UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next afternoon. The United States had serious concerns about Fayyad’s appointment, Haley suggested, because of his nationality and previous position with the Palestinian Authority. “For too long the UN has been unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel,” Haley said. “The United States does not recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations.” If Israelis don’t get UN appointments and are condemned disproportionately by its Human Rights Council and its other bodies, the logic runs, then even a Palestinian widely recognized for his competence and moderation shouldn’t receive a UN posting.
There is no question that Israel has been discriminated against at the United Nations for decades. But if Washington wants to rectify that treatment, blocking a respected international technocrat on the basis of his nationality is the wrong move: it will create further resentment at the same global body Israel is trying to win over, especially among its European members. It will also hinder the UN’s ability to influence events on the ground in Libya.
In the more than five years since the establishment of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in late 2011, the mission has been led by four special representatives: Ian Martin, a senior career UN official experienced in post-conflict management; Tarek Mitri, a Lebanese politician familiar with civil wars and the UN’s only Arabic-speaking special representative to Libya; Bernardino León, a Spanish and EU diplomat who helped shape the Libya Political Agreement that led to a ceasefire in Libya and formed the basis of a tenuous unity government there; and Martin Kobler, a German diplomat who has worked since late 2015 to implement that political agreement and maintain Libya’s fragile stability.
Mediating the fractious disputes that have impeded Libya’s stabilization would be the immediate priority for any UN envoy, and Fayyad’s background navigating the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would have helped him in that role (as would his background as an Arabic speaker). But Fayyad’s profile also includes two other qualifying elements, ones that would have been unprecedented at UNSMIL. At his core, Fayyad is an institution-builder and a reformer—crucial skills for rebuilding a war-torn country. Past envoys have tended to delegate those issues to their deputies, reducing the amount of attention they receive.
None of the UN’s past envoys to Libya have had experience leading these kinds of reforms.
An American-trained economist, Fayyad had a long tenure at the IMF and World Bank before becoming politically active under difficult circumstances: in 2002, he became the finance minister in the government of the notoriously corrupt Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. With international backing to deliver reforms, Fayyad gradually transformed the finance ministry into a professional operation with a real budget and a clearly defined balance sheet—something the Palestinian Authority (PA) had never had.
Libya, whose economic institutions have not changed in the years since Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, is in desperate need of similar reforms. The country’s budget depends upon uneven oil revenues and is being drained by bloated public-sector salaries—a pillar of the system that kept Libyans compliant for the four decades of Qaddafi’s rule. Fayyad could have been an ideal candidate to work on this sensitive task, not least because he is experienced at facing off against competing power bases, as when he cut off direct payments by the PA to Fatah members who had been used to getting payments from Arafat’s slush funds. Dealing with Israeli security forces and political leaders on the one hand and competing Palestinians factions on the other would have prepared him well for handling Libya’s competing blocs.
After Arafat died in 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas was elected his successor in 2005, Fayyad was eventually elevated to the role of prime minister. Fayyad continued to tackle financial reforms in that position, but he also became an institution-builder: in 2008, for example, he developed a plan to consolidate Arafat’s multiple security organizations into three main bodies. He also ended the security forces’ so-called revolving door practices, by which they would arrest terrorist suspects at the request of Israel or the United States only to release them hours later, which encouraged terrorists and criminals to act with impunity. Carried out with American and Israeli support, Fayyad’s reforms remain one of the few bright spots in the Israeli–Palestinian relationship today—and have been praised by Israeli security officials. Without his work, Israeli troops would have had to perform riskier and more frequent operations in Palestinian territory than they do now, creating additional points of friction between the two populations.
None of the UN’s past envoys to Libya have had experience leading these kinds of reforms. But perhaps the worst outcome of blocking Fayyad is that one of the few Palestinian leaders who is respected in Israel and the United States—one who could eventually be a partner in implementing a peace deal—has been prevented from playing an important regional diplomatic role. If Fayyad is not good enough to be a future Palestinian negotiation partner, who is?
It seems likely that Israeli officials raised the matter of Fayyad’s appointment with their American counterparts in the run-up to the February 15 meeting between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington. This would not be the first time that Israeli officials have reached out to Trump for support at the UN: in December, the Israelis appealed to Trump to denounce the Barack Obama administration for abstaining from a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements. In the case of Fayyad, the issue appears to have been Israel’s sensitivity to being treated unfairly at the UN. “Free gifts cannot be constantly given to the Palestinian side,” Netanyahu said of the UN’s plans to appoint Fayyad. Netanyahu conceded that he would “consider” a Palestinian appointment should an Israeli receive a high-level position at the UN, but such a deal would be a nonstarter for any Palestinian seeking to maintain political credibility at home. In the meantime, by denying a moderate Palestinian a prominent platform, Netanyahu took a short-term step to placate his right-wing government—a move that will damage the long-term prospects of a two-state solution.
Guterres can go one of two ways as he seeks to nominate an alternative to Fayyad.
Where will the UN and the West turn now on Libya? Since the Libya Political Agreement was signed in late 2015, establishing the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Kobler and the Western powers have pressed Libya’s major factions—especially the eastern-based House of Representatives and General Khalifa Hifter, the self-appointed head of the Libyan National Army—to formally adopt its terms. Now that Kobler’s departure has been announced, his influence as a mediator between those parties will decline. The Egyptians have stepped into the vacuum and have tried to orchestrate a meeting between Hifter and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, but that has not yet transpired. For his part, Hifter appears to be waiting for his forces to achieve a more dominant position and for a UN-imposed arms embargo to be lifted to deepen his push for international recognition. Hifter’s visits to Moscow and to a Russian aircraft carrier in January suggest that he may be counting on Russia to play a more prominent role in Libya.
Guterres can go one of two ways as he seeks to nominate an alternative to Fayyad. He could enlist an Arab or European diplomat to continue trying to solidify the GNA—although without creating additional leverage by, for example, providing international security forces to protect the GNA, there’s only so much even the most gifted mediator can do. Alternatively, Guterres could select a representative experienced in rebuilding states, acquiring funding, and demanding transparency and accountability. At this stage in Libya’s stalemate, that may be the best, least violent way to reverse the country’s decline, since the GNA needs to build legitimacy by working from the ground up. A few infrastructure projects in key communities to restore power and build schools and hospitals should be the way to start. Libyans have already demonstrated they are willing to organize themselves to protect such projects. The international community should be prepared to provide security assistance to the areas that sign up for such programs—and if the Trump administration wants to help stabilize Libya, it should support, not hinder, those efforts.