The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
On April 4, Khalifa Haftar, the militia leader who controls eastern Libya, launched a large-scale offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli. The attack marked the collapse of negotiations to form an interim government between Haftar and key leaders in western Libya and triggered Libya’s third civil war since 2011.
Haftar evidently hoped to rapidly gain a foothold in Tripoli, finally establishing himself as the unrivaled ruler of Libya. What happened instead was that armed groups across western Libya mobilized to counter his power grab. For the past month, Haftar’s forces—a coalition of regular military units and militias calling themselves the Libyan National Army—have been stuck on Tripoli’s outskirts, slowly losing terrain to militias nominally allied with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). More than 500 people have been killed in the fighting and more than 80,000 have been displaced.
International actors, paralyzed by disunity, have made halfhearted calls for a cease-fire and a return to the political process. But Haftar’s offensive has fatally damaged that process. Without a credible new framework for negotiations and a more robust international approach to resolving the conflict, a cease-fire will simply give Haftar and his opponents the opportunity to rearm and regroup. Western powers—especially the United States—should use diplomatic and economic tools to prevent regional powers from fueling the conflict and hasten the emergence of a harmful stalemate between the rival factions in Libya. Doing so will compel Libyans to return to a political process under new terms.
Earlier this year, Haftar seemed close to reaching a deal with Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of the GNA. In February, the two met in Abu Dhabi and reached a tentative agreement that would have made Haftar the key power broker in a new transitional government. Yet the talks stalled—chiefly because Haftar, as Western and UN diplomats who mediated between the parties told us at the time, was clearly unwilling to accept that he would need to share power.
Haftar’s offensive blind-sided his negotiating partners in western Libya, but they soon rallied to defend the capital. Militia factions that had bitterly tussled with one another for years finally united in opposition to him. Haftar now faces resistance of a magnitude he probably never expected, and with the bulk of his forces deployed to Tripoli, his control over other parts of the country has been dangerously weakened. Already, the Islamic State (ISIS) has exploited this weakness by carrying out attacks in southern Libya.
A cease-fire at this stage is unthinkable.
A cease-fire at this stage is unthinkable. Even if Serraj agreed to a truce, he does not exert enough authority over GNA-aligned militias, especially those from the coastal city of Misrata, to enforce it. The Misratans had long been fighting Haftar and his proxies, and over the past two years their elites had become amenable to a compromise. But since the offensive, they no longer feel that they can trust Haftar, let alone strike a deal without losing their base of support. GNA-aligned forces, moreover, are confident that they can defeat Haftar militarily, at least in western Libya.
Haftar, for his part, has little chance of taking Tripoli anytime soon. Yet he cannot retreat without jeopardizing his political position in eastern Libya. Nor does he face any external pressure to withdraw: his foreign backers, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, support the offensive, and Western governments have responded to it with a mix of toothless condemnation and tacit support. The French, in particular, have encouraged Haftar’s ambitions: they assisted him in his conquest of eastern and southern Libya, inadvertently emboldening him to attack Tripoli, and have protected him politically since the offensive started.
Now the Europeans are insisting that Haftar and the GNA stop fighting and return to the negotiating table, using the Abu Dhabi agreement as a starting point—but this position is divorced from the realities on the ground. In fact, the weak European response to the offensive is a key reason why neither a cease-fire nor a return to the political process is currently realistic: Libya’s warring parties clearly cannot rely on Europeans to enforce the implementation of an agreement.
This leaves the United States. Both the State Department and the Department of Defense initially attempted to convince Haftar to withdraw his forces. But on April 15, U.S. President Donald Trump publicly endorsed Haftar in a phone call, effectively neutralizing the efforts of U.S. diplomats to bring the fighting to a close.
Trump may have sabotaged U.S. diplomatic efforts, but Washington still has options. Its first priority should be to deter regional states—including not only Egypt and the UAE but also Qatar and Turkey—from escalating their military support to Libya’s warring factions. Already there is strong evidence that Haftar’s forces are using foreign drones to launch air-to-surface missiles, most likely provided by the UAE. Over the past five years, Abu Dhabi has been a serial violator of the UN arms embargo on Libya, supporting Haftar with military hardware and air strikes. GNA forces, meanwhile, have turned to Turkey, which has reportedly shipped them armored vehicles.
Given its strong ties with the states currently meddling in Libya, Washington is uniquely positioned to use its diplomatic leverage to stop further violations. But in the absence of a clear position from the executive branch, the most effective action may come from Congress. Specifically, Congress should hold public hearings that would require U.S. government agencies, including the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence services, to disclose evidence that regional states are violating the UN embargo. Congress can also authorize sanctions against foreign companies that facilitate these violations.
The United States can play a constructive role in the struggle over Libya’s oil production, too. As the financial crisis in eastern Libya worsens, Haftar is attempting to sell some of the oil he controls, violating the Libyan National Oil Corporation’s legal monopoly on exports. In the past, the United States has prevented such illegal actions. In the summer of 2018, for example, U.S. diplomats worked with the UN to pressure Haftar into returning captured oil infrastructure to the control of the national oil company. If Haftar attempts illegal oil sales in the future, the United States should be prepared to prevent them.
Washington can also use the public threat of economic sanctions and war crimes prosecutions to deter abuses—ranging from attacks on civilians to attempts to disrupt Tripoli’s vulnerable water supply—and compel both sides to return to the negotiating table. Here, Haftar deserves special scrutiny: in August 2017 the International Criminal Court indicted one of his officers for the unlawful killing of 33 prisoners of war, and in 2015 Haftar appeared in a video ordering his soldiers to take no prisoners. Because Haftar is a U.S. citizen, the United States could prosecute him under the U.S. War Crimes Act. The U.S. Treasury Department could also impose sanctions on Haftar, invoking the same legal authority it used last fall to sanction another Libyan militia leader for his “prolonged militia attacks on Libya’s capital.”
By staving off foreign interference, safeguarding Libya’s oil resources, and wielding punitive measures, the United States could begin to steer Libya’s antagonists toward a political process. Such a process, however, cannot include Haftar and his inner circle. For too long, the warlord has cynically exploited negotiations as a means toward his ultimate end of seizing power. Outside powers, believing that he could be tamed, have rewarded his territorial conquests with political clout.
To end this vicious cycle, the United States must convince Haftar’s Arab backers to remove him from the scene. They are wedded not to the man himself but to his promise to advance their interests. Washington should also redouble its engagement with Haftar’s constituencies in eastern and southern Libya, including tribal politicians, business and civil society leaders, and high-ranking LNA officers, several of whom have ties to the Pentagon. Many from these groups were uneasy about Haftar’s personal ambitions but supported him out of expediency or desperation. Before Haftar attacked Tripoli, they were engaged in dialogue with their counterparts on the GNA side. The longer the conflict drags on, the more constituencies on both sides will be willing to compromise through localized cease-fire initiatives, further marginalizing Haftar.
Aside from exploiting local grievances, Haftar justified his offensive on the grounds that predatory militias had effectively captured the GNA in Tripoli and, with it, the Libyan state’s coffers. This problem, too, is one that Washington can help address. Prior to Haftar’s attack, the authorities in the capital, backed by the UN, were achieving modest progress in curtailing the militias’ power. To make real headway in this respect, however, Libya will need negotiations for a new, more inclusive government and much more international support. The United States, in particular, can help with a neutral and comprehensive audit of the Central Bank of Libya—something the UN had been planning before Haftar’s attack.
In their combined travels across Libya over the past decade, the authors have never seen as much political and social polarization among Libyans—and paralysis among outside states—as there is now. The situation requires decisive action, and the United States is the only international actor capable of providing it. Washington must get tough on violations of the UN arms embargo and hold Libya’s warring sides accountable for their conduct; it must also pursue a more inclusive governance framework for Libya’s future—one that does not include Haftar. There is no guarantee that these steps will work. But they stand a better chance than validating the ambitions of an aspiring authoritarian who has hurled the country into a civil war.