By Hafed Al-Ghwell
Few people in Washington are as knowledgeable about Libya as Jonathan Winer, who was the United States special envoy to the country from 2013 to 2017.
He is also a former deputy assistant secretary of state and was counsel to senator John Kerry, later secretary of state.
What has happened there before? What is happening now? Where might it all be heading? Winer knows.
We start with the fact that US President Barack Obama, in 2011, was not keen to join the call for action in Libya because he did not want a repeat of the Iraq story.
In the end, he was reluctantly persuaded to join NATO’s efforts and support the UN resolutions, with a minimum commitment from the US for the aftermath — or as Obama put it, “leading from behind.”
He was mainly persuaded by his secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton, former US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, his adviser Samantha Power, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, who was still prime minister of the UK.
Obama and his administration shouldered very little risk in the venture. For one thing, the UK and France promised to do all the post-conflict state building.
There was also a sense that Libya, which had close to $200 billion in assets, was in no need of money; all it required was technical advice on how to invest that money domestically to rebuild the country and form a strong democracy, with help from the EU, the US and the international community.
In recent years, of course, all that optimism, which I believed at the time to be quite unrealistic, has evaporated, proving that breaking a country and removing its regime do not mean it will be easy to rebuild it or avoid its descent into chaos, as we can see in Libya, where warring factions and militias are still terrorizing the population, as witnessed during the past few weeks in Tripoli, the capital.
The initial optimism also did not anticipate all the mayhem that the fall of Qaddafi would cause internally for Libyans, both politically and economically, and externally, as the Libyan civil war threatens its neighbors in North Africa, across the Mediterranean and to the south, including Chad and Niger.
According to Winer, the Obama administration tried with good intentions to join every international effort to bring peace to Libya and contain the threats to its neighbors.
The US tried to start many training and advisory programs in Libya, including serious efforts to reform Libya’s public finances to reduce fraud and corruption.
Sadly, all efforts toward that goal were frustrated by competing Libyan parties and other countries that took sides in the civil war by arming and financing the various armed groups and politicians.
In September 2012, when the US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was assassinated by a mob of radicals, all of the US efforts in Libya froze.
It was a very big shock and a wake-up call from all the optimism there had been until then — mainly spread by Ambassador Stevens himself, who loved Libya and wanted to see it succeed.
That was when the US began to see that Libya was heading in the wrong direction and being infiltrated by radical anti-American Islamist groups.
Alarms were raised in Washington and elsewhere that the country was descending into failure, which would allow more radical groups to try to fill the void left by the absence of a strong government.
The US strategy shifted to include Libya in its larger war on terrorism, but the administration tried to keep, as much as possible, a very light footprint in the internal Libyan political circus to avoid a repeat of Iraq.
Following the famous doctrine from former US national security adviser Colin Powell, “If you break it, you will own it,” the US remained outside any effort to choose a government in Libya, like what happened in the Sekherat agreement.
The US wanted to avoid any blame for future failures or the appearance that it was taking sides. The split between the east and west in 2014 was, according to Winer, the clearest sign of the Libyan state’s failure.
This was exacerbated by the appearance of military leader Khalifa Haftar, who ignored all efforts to convince him to accept the principle that the army must be under civilian control, even if just for the sake of appearances, or persuade him to change his conviction that the only solution in Libya is a military one.
In response to Haftar, Islamist groups of all shades and colors, including moderates, united in a loose alliance to prevent him from taking over the country by force, adding fuel to the already raging fire.
Now, as the US pulls further and further away from Libya, European powers, neighboring countries and a wide range of criminal gangs dominate the country, with the UN reduced to the role of trying to “herd cats” and gather them in some sort of agreement to save the country and spare its people further suffering.
Winer’s advice for the future is simple and to the point. Libyans need to take the initiative, unite their public institutions, form a decentralized government that can distribute the oil wealth fairly and, above all, engage in a very serious and deep reconciliation with each other and their own pasts, if they want to have a better future.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.