By Jo Becker and Eric Schmitt
“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers.
But perhaps just as concerning, he indicated, were intelligence reports that Russia was helping a former Libyan general turned military strongman in a fight for control over the country’s government and vast oil resources. In fact, just two months earlier, in a brazen assertion of the Kremlin’s growing Middle East ambitions, Russia’s only aircraft carrier had entered Libyan waters and, with great fanfare, welcomed aboard the militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
During his campaign for president, Donald J. Trump made the United States-backed NATO operation that toppled Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a cornerstone of his critique of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy.
The 2011 intervention left Libya with dueling governments — one recognized by the United States and the international community, the other aligned with General Haftar. In the chaos, Libya also became a safe haven for the Islamic State.
But despite a terrorist attack in Britain last spring whose Libyan roots offered a gruesome reminder that the Islamic State in Libya remains a deadly threat, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at a coherent policy for the country. On one hand, the president has said he sees no role for the United States in Libya; on the other, he has said the United States must fight the Islamic State there.
The resulting policy vacuum, according to Libyan officials, American military commanders and intelligence analysts, has helped Russia spread its growing influence in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
For months, the questions around Mr. Trump and Russia have largely focused on a different issue: whether anyone in the president’s inner circle was complicit in Moscow’s effort to disrupt the 2016 election. But even as the president’s approach to Libya offers a case study of what critics say is the dysfunction that permeates his overall foreign policy, it also illustrates the curious dynamic that characterizes his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In openly courting General Haftar, the Kremlin was testing one of the incoming American president’s guiding foreign policy assumptions — that he could work with Mr. Putin to tackle thorny issues in the Muslim world — and instead sent a signal to the world that Russia would continue to pursue its own interests there.
Yet, as has often been the case when it comes to Mr. Putin, there has been little to no resistance on Mr. Trump’s watch. The president himself has said nothing, and the State Department seems at odds with the Pentagon’s wary assessment of the Russian threat.
In December, Mr. Trump met privately with the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Serraj, in Washington. In an interview, two senior White House aides argued that the United States was fully engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to the country’s civil strife. But the Libyan leader left with no policy pronouncements from the president. Indeed, the administration has deferred the difficult job of brokering a diplomatic settlement almost entirely to the United Nations.
In Libya, as elsewhere, Mr. Trump has been guided largely by his own instincts and by a small circle of advisers who have his ear but little in-country experience. That is because a year into the president’s tenure, many critical foreign policy positions remain vacant or recently filled. The top Africa specialist overseeing Libya at the National Security Council was not installed until early September, and there is currently no American ambassador.
Efforts to arrive at a comprehensive American strategy have also been hampered by infighting between top political advisers, who have argued that foreign entanglements in places like Libya are not in keeping with Mr. Trump’s “America First” campaign promise, and top Pentagon and national security officials, who have urged the president to do more to combat the Islamic State there.
The crossfire has left Libyan officials, Western allies and even some in the United States embassy responsible for the country perplexed, as Libya policy has careened from a hands-off approach to a more recent spate of scattershot airstrikes against ISIS fighters who have regrouped in Libya since the president’s election.
“What U.S. policy in Libya?” Martin Kobler, the former United Nations special envoy there, asked in an interview with The New York Times shortly before he stepped down last summer.
Donald Trump’s Shifting Position on Libya
President Trump initially supported the Libya intervention, urging the Obama administration in a video blog to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from unleashing what many feared would be a massacre in Benghazi.
“Now, we should go in. We should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it and save these lives.”
During the second presidential debate, Mr. Trump used the situation in Libya to criticize his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state had championed the intervention.
“Look at what she did in Libya with Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s out. It’s a mess. And, by the way, ISIS has a good chunk of their oil. I’m sure you probably have heard that. It was a disaster. Because the fact is, almost everything she’s done in foreign policy has been a mistake and it’s been a disaster.”
Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about his earlier support for the intervention, Mr. Trump said that while he had not opposed toppling Mr. Qaddafi, he was never for a “strong intervention.”
“You do a surgical shot and you take him out. But I wasn’t for what happened.”
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has said next to nothing about his approach to Libya, except for this somewhat contradictory statement:
“I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere. So I do not see that. I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS.”
Meanwhile, an emboldened Mr. Putin has seized the opportunity to expand Russian influence over the oil-rich North African nation just 300 miles from Europe. This is part of a broader, more ambitious Middle East strategy that builds on the Kremlin’s successful military campaign to prop up President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, at America’s expense.
In Libya, Russia has publicly offered itself up as a mediator between the country’s warring factions. But Moscow has also been covertly aiding major players like General Haftar, putting a thumb on the scale of a multifront civil war at a time when the United States is supporting the fragile United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord.
According to dozens of interviews with current and former European, Libyan and American officials, Russia’s involvement in Libya goes significantly beyond ushering General Haftar into a stateroom on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to confer with Russia’s defense minister in Moscow over a secure telephone line.
It includes previously unreported instances of attempted weapons-for-oil deals, attempted bribery and efforts to influence top government defense appointments, as well as printing money and stamping coinage for the Haftar-allied government. American and British intelligence officials told The Times that Russia, aided by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, had also provided a range of weapons to General Haftar.
In the last year, Russia has quietly but steadily entrenched its influence, sending military advisers and intelligence officers to the country’s east, and providing General Haftar’s troops with spare parts, repairs and medical care, according to American and other Western intelligence officials.
Mohammed Mensli, a senior adviser to the Government of National Accord, said it was “vital” that America become more engaged and condemn destabilizing interference by other nations.
“We really are not interested at all in the Russians getting involved in our affairs,” he said, “but they are very persistent.”
A Dwindling Sense of Urgency
So risky is the security situation in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that the United States embassy has been temporarily relocated across the border in Tunisia. In late May, at a dinner party at the American ambassador’s residence there, General Waldhauser was grilled by the attendees on the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent Libya policy. He had no real answers, one American guest said.
There appeared to be some sense of urgency early on. American officials working out of the Libya Embassy in Tunis said they had been assured that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would make Libya a top priority, several officials said in interviews. And then there were the warnings from some of Mr. Trump’s top military advisers, including General Waldhauser’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Trump’s lack of sustained attention caused consternation in some quarters not just because of the terrorism threat but also because Libya remained a primary transit route for refugees and human traffickers.
“You had this country that was the topic of a lot of campaign rhetoric, and at the same time those of us who had been working on Libya issues in government felt an urgency to build pockets of stability,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Presidents Obama and Trump. “But over the past year, I haven’t seen much momentum to do that.”
Last spring, two months after General Waldhauser testified on Capitol Hill, a suicide bomber detonated a shrapnel-laden explosive device during a concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250 others. The bomber was of Libyan descent and had recently traveled to Libya to meet with an Islamic State commander.
By early summer, there were ominous signs that the Islamic State was recovering from a B-2 bomber attack that, according to the Pentagon, killed more than 80 militants at a Libyan training camp just days before Mr. Trump took office. Amanda J. Dory, who had just stepped down as the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, warned that “we’re seeing some signs” that the Islamic State was further “regrouping in Libya.”
Some aides urged the president to increase the modest number of military advisers in Libya — roughly two dozen Special Operations soldiers at any given time. But the effort was stymied by Stephen K. Bannon, then Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.
Mr. Bannon clashed frequently with Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who, Mr. Bannon said, kept pushing for more American involvement in a variety of places, including Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
“Every day there was a new ask with no overarching strategy,” Mr. Bannon recalled in an interview after leaving the White House but before his recent public break with Mr. Trump over his comments in a book about the administration’s first year. “Libya was what pushed me over the edge.”
Mr. Bannon was more open to an idea pitched by Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide whom he had gotten to know when he oversaw the conservative website Breitbart News. Mr. Prince had proposed relying on contractors to tackle Libya’s security problems. It seemed, at least to Libyan officials, that the idea was gaining steam: One said Mr. Prince had approached them about it at a conference in London where he was seen with Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon ally and White House adviser at the time.
How was sending American troops to Libya in America’s interest? Mr. Bannon wanted to know.
At a wide-ranging Saturday morning meeting on July 8, Mr. Bannon took his complaints to Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general. The country was a mess, Mr. Bannon said he told the secretary, and greater American involvement could only backfire.
Mr. Mattis listened politely, Mr. Bannon said, but pointed out that Libya, along with parts of Syria and the Philippines, was a critical battlefield in the global fight against the Islamic State. Mr. Bannon responded that if the president was going to be asked to get more deeply involved in Libya, he at least wanted Mr. Trump to have a “strategic overview of U.S. commitments around the globe, everything from military to trade agreements, so that all these requests could be put in a larger context.”
A three-hour follow-up meeting with the president took place on July 20 at the Pentagon. As Mr. Bannon had hoped, once the National Security Council convened to discuss hot spots around the world where the Pentagon might need to bolster its presence, Libya fell farther down the priority list.
At least for the moment, Mr. Bannon had won the day.
But if Mr. Trump’s Libya policy seemed unintelligible to some, the president of another world power had a far clearer vision.
To be contiued
Jo Becker is a reporter in the investigative unit of The New York Times.
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times.
Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.