A Kremlin-backed tyrant in Tripoli would be a disaster for U.S. interests.
By Emily Estelle
American interests are under attack in Libya, whether we realize it or not. Adversaries and allies alike are attempting to install a dictator.
In doing so, they’re undermining U.S. credibility and challenging American leadership of the international order.
Hundreds—maybe thousands—of Russian mercenaries joined the battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, this fall, fighting alongside Khalifa Haftar.
Russia’s primary interest isn’t Libya, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Vladimir Putin interpreted the Arab Spring, and particularly the NATO intervention that led to the death of Gadhafi, as Western threats to the survival of his autocratic regime.
His interventions in Syria and now Libya are attempts to shore up faltering strongmen.
Mr. Putin wants to put a new Gadhafi in power to show that revolutions are doomed to fail and that he, not the U.S. or NATO, is an effective power broker in the region.
Mr. Putin aims to undermine America’s post-Cold War leadership of the international order by casting the West as hypocritical and building an alliance system of like-minded autocrats. (China’s rise, and its development of technology that strengthens other autocracies, compounds this trend.)
The U.S. has only worsened the situation by appearing to be an unreliable ally—to the Kurds in Syria and to the Libyan forces who fought ISIS with U.S. support but now face Haftar’s airstrikes.
The Kremlin today would probably like to install as Libya’s president either Gadhafi’s son, Saif, or Haftar, a would-be autocrat in the style of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
Either result would send the message that democracy has failed in Libya.
If Haftar’s forces succeed, it won’t be for a lack of Libyan resistance—many have striven against the militias’ rise to power in the years after Gadhafi’s fall—but because the free world did not do enough to help them succeed when guns overcame ballots.
Russia isn’t alone in its fight against democracy in Libya.
America’s Arab allies and partners—notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—are backing Haftar.
They’re preventing the formation of a pluralistic democracy, a kind of government that could provide a model that their citizens could use to challenge them.
These regimes are particularly threatened by the possibility of a democracy that allows the participation of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is part of a larger competition to shape the future of governance in the Arab world. Islamist parties—often backed by Turkey and Qatar—bring their own challenges, but it is almost certainly better to let elections play out than to try to stamp out voters’ preferences through repression.
The security implications of the Libyan civil war are real and dire.
Haftar’s supporters argue that as a strongman, he would curb terrorism and control migration. Experience suggests the opposite.
The violent suppression of nonviolent Islamists strengthens an extreme and violent alternative, Salafism.
By crushing peaceful political expression and victimizing vulnerable populations—which Salafi groups then exploit—Haftar’s methods and those of his backers invite future insurgencies.
The Trump administration is slowly waking up to this reality.
The State Department last month strongly condemned Haftar’s forces and Russia. While this is an important step—needed to clarify the U.S. position after President Trump’s April phone call to Haftar was perceived as giving support for his offensive on Tripoli—a statement isn’t enough.
Haftar’s forces and Russian mercenaries intensified their attacks on rival militias in Tripoli immediately following the U.S. denunciation.
U.S. officials subsequently met Haftar to discuss a cease-fire, but his forces’ attacks have continued, including airstrikes on residential areas.
The U.S. has a choice:
keep trying to improve Libya’s economy, security, and governance on the margins as the war rages on, or take measures to end the conflict—and to deny Mr. Putin and his fellow autocrats another victory.
Europe is too divided on the subject to play this role.
The U.S. should take the lead in convening Libyan and foreign leaders alike to reach a cease-fire in Tripoli.
Washington should be willing to use some of its abundant leverage over Arab allies and partners to curb flagrant violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
The U.S. should also step up efforts to curb Russia’s use of private military contractors and encourage European allies to impose sanctions on them as well.
These actions are a necessary first step to alleviate the suffering of innocent civilians, reassert American leadership and open a path to what the Libyan people have long awaited—the opportunity to govern themselves.
Emile Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.