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Obama’s Murky Libya Policy

“We’re going to have to encourage some of the countries inside of the Gulf who have, I think, influence over the various factions inside of Libya to be more cooperative themselves,” was President Obama’s insight Friday into the country’s eight-month-old civil war. Since Qatar has been supporting the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli while the United Arab Emirates has been supporting the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, it’s not clear why it has taken Obama until now to realize this.

In the coming weeks, it’s possible that the blessedly half-hearted civil war in Libya will sputter to a close through UN-mediated talks that have been taking place in Algeria and Morocco. The aim has been the formation of a “unity government,” ending the war between Libya’s elected, internationally recognized government in Tobruk, under Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, and the coalition of Islamist militiamen called Fajr, or Dawn, who took control of Tripoli in August 2014. While the legitimate government has recently made battlefield gains, the country of 6 million remains divided about evenly between the two sides, and even staunch supporters think Fajr could last several more months. About half the country supports Fajr due to complex city-state alliances, including many who don’t consider themselves Islamists. But the core leadership of Fajr is Islamist, with a substantial number of extremists.

Meanwhile, Libya is in dire shape: The black flags of the Islamists still fly in the outskirts of Benghazi, and in the town centers of Derna and Sirte. Islamic State training camps ring Sabratha, home to some of Libya’s storied Roman ruins. It’s estimated that 25–30 percent of the population has left the country, mainly for Tunisia and Egypt. If the Libyans form a workable coalition, and if—a big if—the Fajr Islamist militias actually leave Tripoli and allow a unity government to take control, the country may be able to beat back the Islamic State from the shores of the Mediterranean.

As Obama’s statement Friday suggests, our Libya policy since the death of Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011 has been, at best, one of attempted benign neglect. But at worst, we have been foisting Islamists upon an electorate who rejected them twice. Even our superficially innocuous support for international efforts to name a “unity government” have involved a betrayal of Libya’s democratic aspirations. The talks have drawn a false moral equivalence between the elected Libyan government and the Islamist militias that drove it out of Tripoli in August 2014 by violence.

Americans may not know it, but Libyans like voting. Since Libyans won their freedom in the fall of 2011, they have peacefully participated in four free and fair elections: municipal council elections in fall 2011 and June 2014, and parliamentary elections in July 2012 and June 2014. The problem is, when the Islamists made a dismal showing for the second time in June 2014, they turned to violence.

A combination of Islamists and city militias from Misrata, Tripoli, and other western cities captured Tripoli in August, driving the elected parliament to seek refuge in Tobruk, on the far eastern shore. The United Nations, the US, the UK, and nearly all countries recognize only the Tobruk parliament, known as the House of Representatives, and the prime minister and cabinet they chose.

Most Americans are unaware that since August, Tripoli and western Libya have been ruled by Islamic extremists very similar to people we are fighting in Iraq and Yemen. We don’t currently negotiate with the terrorists in those countries, but we advise the Libyans to do so in theirs. Many of the top Fajr commanders are veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an al-Qaeda affiliate; many were captured on the battlefield by US troops in Afghanistan or Pakistan, rendered to Libya, and imprisoned until Qaddafi’s overthrow. Abdelhakim Belhadj, a participant in the UN negotiations, is among the LIFG gang—even though his Watan Party failed to win a single seat in the House of Representatives.

The prime minister chosen by this motley crew, Omar al-Hassi, was prone to praising Ansar al-Sharia, the terror group that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens on September 12, 2012. Even as Hassi was dismissed two weeks ago, Ansar’s Libyan head declared allegiance to the Islamic State “caliph” in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. One former Libyan cabinet minister, Ali Mohamed Mihirig, told me that the Misrata militias in Fajr are still arming Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi. Meanwhile, the last of Tripoli’s public statues representing people or animals disappeared from view a week or two back.

It’s true that the elected government in eastern Libya is far from ideal. The same devils of lack of capacity and corruption that have crippled every post-Qaddafi government afflict this one. But there’s a huge difference in moral tone between the LIFG gang and the Thani government, which, for example, nominated a highly qualified woman as minister of foreign affairs for the first time in Libya’s history (she wasn’t confirmed by the House of Representatives and is now Libya’s representative to the EU).

Yet it’s unclear if the US State Department sees the differences clearly enough. According to the journalists Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, Ambassador Deborah Jones wrote a cable in early March pushing outreach to the “supposedly more moderate elements of the militia-aligned opposition forces”—allies of the very same people who killed her predecessor. No one understands why, and “and as of now US policy remains to deal exclusively with the Tobruk leadership.”

Libyans have noticed that the UN-sponsored talks involve, in the local English-language paper’s words, “an even split between representatives of secular and Islamist parties,” even though the Islamists won only a small share of seats in the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The talks are penalizing the legitimate government for losing control of the capital to violent thugs—and that control is the only “legitimacy” the thugs have. The moral seems to be that one gets a better position at the negotiating table by picking up guns than by political campaigning. Libyans supporting the elected government often lament on Twitter and Facebook that the international community is foisting violent Islamists upon an electorate that has done everything possible to reject them.

Meanwhile, the US has opposed lifting a United Nations ban on arming the Tobruk government to take control of its own territory back from the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, and Fajr. Libyans don’t understand why the elected Yemeni government gets help, and the elected Iraqi government gets help, but the elected Libyan government is supposed to negotiate evenly with those who rose up against it. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the Fajr militias, including with covert arms shipments, while US allies like Egypt’s General Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and the UAE support the Tobruk government as the best defense against a takeover of the country by the Islamic State. (In an alarming but understandable reaction, the Tobruk government recently announced that it will seek arms from Russia if the UN ban is lifted.)

The level playing field of the current peace talks has led the Libyans—politically immature, impressionable, and prone to conspiracy theories—to believe that the international community, and the US in particular, views unelected Islamic extremists as appropriate negotiating partners and legitimate political voices. There are plenty of Libyans who mutter darkly that the US is “really” supporting the terrorists—and it’s hard to explain that it only looks that way.

This US policy is likely to come back to haunt Libya, the West, and Washington.

 

No Libyan I’ve spoken with, including members of the Tobruk House of Representatives, three ambassadors, and one former cabinet minister, understands why the United States did not do more to help stabilize Libya in 2011–12. There were plans to train young militiamen who committed to joining the national army or police, but they moved so slowly that the country fell apart before any Libyans came here for instruction.

In all fairness to the Obama administration, the Libyans didn’t make it easy for us to help them set their state in order: The Libyan state has spent an estimated 4 billion dinars, or $2.96 billion, financing the undisciplined militiamen (of all stripes) who have torn the country apart. That would have paid for a lot of job training programs. And the internationally recognized post-Qaddafi administrations have been extraordinarily incompetent. Libya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told me, “We don’t have the institutions to absorb the foreign assistance.” When I asked what help he wanted from the US for Libya, he only suggested easing the UN arms embargo.

But unlike Afghanistan, Libya is economically viable, and can pay for expertise; it can also be a market for American products, though it’s not populous enough to be very exciting. No Libyan government has ever asked for US troops on the ground, and that’s a good thing. If anything, the Libyans have been too reluctant to ask for our expertise. But what they have asked for, and can really use, is the moral weight of our support for elections and our refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Tragically, the Obama administration’s policy, and the president’s State Department, have failed them so far.

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, covered the Libyan revolution as a journalist and has worked as a consultant for a branch of the Libyan state since 2012. The views expressed here are her own.

 

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