By Josh Rogin
Whatever you think of President Barack Obama’s decision to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011, the fact is that the United States has a responsibility in making sure that country has the best possible chance of achieving stability and democracy, and remains our partner in fighting terrorism. But the Trump administration is missing in action.
Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, leads the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was established in 2015 through an international process endorsed by the United States and the United Nations.
Four years later, his government and Libya’s capital, Tripoli, are under attack by Khalifa Hifter , a dual Libyan American citizen who leads a military force supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies, as well as Russia.
The Trump administration has been sending mixed messages about its Libya policy. Even though the State and Defense departments have consistently expressed support for the GNA, President Trump muddied the waters by taking a phone call with Hifter in April in the middle of Hifter’s attack on Tripoli, reportedly at the behest of Trump’s then-national security adviser John Bolton.
Last week, Sarraj traveled to the United Nations and gave a speech calling on the international community to uphold its obligations to support the internationally recognized government. He then came to Washington to try to figure out, for the sake of his country, how to navigate the U.S. capital in confusing times.
“It is necessary for the U.S. administration to take the Libyan case seriously and cooperate with the U.N. mission to get something done,” he told me in an interview. “If there is real will to support Libya’s stability, I believe there is a good opportunity for a success story here that could benefit the U.S. administration.”
Sarraj’s pitch is threefold:
First, he argues that the United States is already cooperating with the GNA on fighting terrorism, with demonstrable success.
Second, he says U.S. companies could benefit significantly from opportunities in Libya’s energy, infrastructure and security sectors, if the civil war with Hifter could only be stopped.
Lastly, he warns that if America is absent, Libya could turn into a field for other nations to fight proxy wars akin to Syria.
Plus, Sarraj points out, the United States is the only country with any chance of persuading Arab states and Russia to cease fueling Hifter’s war machine, which now includes Russian mercenaries fighting on the ground.
“We ask the United States, if it believes in a political solution, to stop these countries from providing [Hifter] the money, the equipment and the weapons that has enabled him to continue this,” he said.
Some international leaders have called on Sarraj to re-engage with Hifter diplomatically, but the prime minister says he has already tried — and his efforts have proved futile. He says Libya’s only chance for success relies on letting Libyans choose their leaders through the ballot box, not at the point of a gun.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me he spoke with Trump last month and urged him to drastically increase U.S. attention to the Libya crisis, in support of the GNA.
Graham wants Trump to appoint a special envoy for Libya, just as Trump has done for North Korea, Syria and Iran, to focus and organize U.S. international leadership on the issue.
“Libya is strategically important to the United States for a variety of reasons,” Graham told me. “If we don’t turn Libya around now, we will have a second wave of refugees flowing into Europe, it will become the new Syria, a new safe haven for ISIS types and put a lot of pressure on our allies.”
Trump’s engagement with Hifter was a mistake that is being overcome, Graham said, but there’s no time to waste in returning the United States to a leadership role.
Obama, after leaving office, said his biggest mistake as president was not properly supporting Libya after the fall of Gaddafi to ensure Libya could succeed.
Graham said Trump need not make the same error: “It is so sad that the Obama administration didn’t follow up after Gaddafi, and it would be equally sad if the Trump administration doesn’t seize the opportunity here to put Libya back together.”
Aside from finding itself under attack from a warlord, the GNA has many other problems — including competing militias and a lack of civil society. But it is doubtful that handing the country back to another authoritarian strongman would result in either stability or prosperity there.
“There are common values that we have with the United States: democracy, peaceful transition of power, elections, the civil state,” Sarraj said. “But we notice that when it comes to Libya, we see a double standard.”
This is not one of those foreign policy issues the United States can afford to ignore.
The lesson of Libya is not that U.S. intervention is bad; the lesson is that when the United States leaves a vacuum, bad actors intervene.
Josh Rogin – Columnist covering foreign policy and national security. He is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper.