This post has been updated, 3:40 p.m.
Ever since the White House revealed earlier this month that President Trump had called a Libyan warlord who is attacking Tripoli, the U.S. position on Libya has been confused and confusing, with real negative consequences on the ground. Even the Libyan government has no idea what Washington’s policy is right now.
The least the Trump administration can do is pick one Libya policy, tell everyone clearly what it is and stick to it. The best choice would be to bolster and defend the internationally recognized government in Tripoli that we were supposed to be supporting in the first place, not the Russian-backed warlord breaking the peace.
Khalifa Hifter, a dual Libyan-U.S. citizen leading a militia in Libya’s east, is waging war against the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and attacking Tripoli, with thinly disguised assistance from Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. U.S. military forces fighting terrorism have been forced to withdraw from Tripoli as the situation worsens and the GNA pleads for international support.
Khalid al-Mishri, the chairman of Libya’s High Council of State, told me in a phone interview that the GNA still has no official explanation from the Trump administration as to why Trump called Hifter, recognized his “significant role in fighting terrorism” and discussed a “shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” as the White House statement said.
“We believe there’s a lack of clarity to the United States policy, and we are looking for clarification,” said Mishri.
As far as the Libyan government was aware, the United States was fully supportive of the 2015 agreement that established the GNA as the sole legitimate government in Tripoli. On April 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Hifter to halt his offensive. “This shows that there is maybe a difference of opinion between the White House and the State Department, and we are trying to talk to our friends in Washington to find out more about this,” Mishri told me.
Several officials told me that Trump’s call to Hifter was the work of national security adviser John Bolton, who had spoken to Hifter himself only days prior. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan also discussed the call with Trump, officials said.
The GNA is warning that if Hifter’s attacks on Tripoli are allowed to proceed, the result will be a security and economic disaster in Tripoli that will have a ripple effect around the region and the world. War inside Tripoli will crash Libya’s economy,cause a new refugee crisis, imperil international business interests there, disrupt oil markets and embolden the Islamic State, which thrives on instability, Mishri argued.
The United States has a unique role to play because it is the only country that can influence the various regional players and hopefully persuade them to back off their support for Hifter’s offensive, Mishri said. The forces supporting the GNA in Tripoli will defend the city, he said, because they believe in the U.N.-supported process that has provided Libya with a degree of stability and a path toward democracy.
“What Hifter is trying to do is not fighting terrorism, it is to fight against all his political opponents in the name of fighting terrorists,” Mishri said. “A big part of his army are terrorists and extremists that today are doing terrible things to civilians.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was in Tunisia when the news of the Trump-Hifter phone call broke, told me he witnessed the confusion the phone call caused on the ground. Graham is trying to encourage Trump and the administration to get all the regional players to come to the table and agree on a political path forward to avoid more bloodshed.
“It’s crystal clear to me if Hifter moves on Tripoli this will ignite a war on a much larger level, it will be a mini Syria, that the regional proxies will up their game, that a vacuum will be created when more [Islamic State] types will be allowed to come back,” Graham told me. “There’s been confusion created by this phone call. And it’s going to end badly if we don’t clear it up.”
The United States’ National Security Council called “inaccurate” an April 24 Bloomberg article that claimed Trump had indicated support for Hifter to attack Tripoli. But several current and former officials told me there’s no other way to interpret the phone call and the White House statement as anything other than an implicit endorsement of Hifter’s actions.
“When you call Hifter in the middle of a military campaign and note his fighting terrorism, you are effectively endorsing his military campaign,” said Philip H. Gordon, who was the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region during the Obama administration. Trump is endorsing might over right and authoritarianism over democratic processes, Gordon said, but that’s not the only problem. “Hifter can’t even do what Sissi has done militarily, it seems,” he said.
The Obama administration deserves some blame for failing to lead in Libya after supporting the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi, a mistake President Barack Obama said he regrets. But Trump seeming to side with a warlord against the U.S. and UN policy without explanation is worse than negligent; it undermines both U.S. credibility and the overall drive for stability and democracy in the region.