Frederic Wehrey

Outside powers take a growing interest in this oil-rich African state where the U.S. Embassy has been closed since 2014.

Success in diplomacy, like success in life—to borrow from an old cliché—largely depends on showing up. But for over half a decade, the United States hasn’t been showing up in Libya, at least not in a way that is sustained and meaningful. It speaks to a U.S. State Department approach to the country that is often more akin to sloganeering and wishful thinking than implementable policy.

Caught in the crossfire of inter-militia fighting that raged throughout the Libyan capital of Tripoli in summer 2014, U.S. diplomats shuttered their villa-based embassy and evacuated to Tunisia. They have yet to return, even as conditions in Libya have become considerably safer in the past years and other foreign embassies have either reopened or are in the process of doing so.

Their absence is due in part to the politicized legacy of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, which killed then-Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and unleashed a flurry of Republican scapegoating in Congress that has yet to fully abate. That tragic episode has also made Biden administration officials unusually risk averse in signing off on the embassy’s return to Libya.

Earlier this month, though, there were signs for guarded optimism that this may be changing. At a March 22 hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified that his department was “actively working on” reestablishing a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Libya, though he declined to go into specifics about what steps the State Department was taking, or a timetable. The State Department has included funds for the return of the embassy to Tripoli in its budget request to Congress—a good thing—but it’s not clear if this funding will clear the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, or if and when Blinken will move forward with the reopening.

Without a physical presence in the country, the U.S. diplomats working on Libya will continue to be based at the U.S. embassy in neighboring Tunisia. But, as I’ve seen firsthand during extended fieldwork in Libya over the years, many of the Libyans who matter are unable or unwilling to make that trip, often for financial or political reasons. As a result, U.S. diplomats are unable to build trust with, understand, and possibly influence key Libyan players. Half-day in-and-out stops by senior U.S. officials to heavily fortified airports or ministries in Libya are hardly a viable substitute for continuous visibility and interaction.

These deleterious effects have only compounded as Libya’s security and energy importance has grown in recent years and a bevy of outside powers have taken a growing interest in the oil-rich African state.

Russia deployed thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries, regular personnel, and advanced weaponry in 2019-20 to support a military bid by eastern Libya-based warlord Khalifa Haftar. Haftar sought to topple the internationally recognized government in the capital. Though that effort failed because of Turkish military intervention, Russia continues to enjoy a spoiling influence in Libya. 

Most notably, it is propping up Haftar’s armed coalition, the Libyan Armed Forces, giving him the means to maintain his grip over vast swathes of Libyan territory and to block the export of Libyan oil—as he did from April to July 2022, precisely when crude prices were skyrocketing because of the Russia-Ukraine war. That self-serving act harmed ordinary Libyans, European states that receive Libyan energy exports, and the global economy, while conveniently benefiting the Kremlin.

Wagner fighters have also ensconced themselves around oilfields and inside airbases across southern and eastern Libya, from which they’ve ferried personnel and material into African states in the Sahel. Here, they’ve presented themselves as an appealing alternative to what locals perceive as an overbearing French—and American—neocolonial order, offering autocrats a suite of services, ranging from military training and counterinsurgency to propaganda and personal protection, while committing horrific abuses in the process.

It is a measure of just how seriously the Biden administration views Libya as a springboard for Russian power projection, as well as a potential source of illicit financing—Wagner personnel are already said to be tapping into Libyan oil revenues—that it recently dispatched two high-level emissaries to eastern Libya to meet with Haftar. CIA Director William Burns traveled to Benghazi in January, followed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf in March. The details of their full discussion with the famously obdurate Haftar remain unclear, but it likely centered on his support for planned elections in Libya later this year and a mix of pressure, warnings, and incentives to compel him to cut his ties with Moscow and eject Russia’s mercenaries from Libyan soil.

But herein lies the longtime problem with Washington’s policy toward Tripoli—a problem that a sustained diplomatic presence may diminish but certainly can’t remedy completely.

U.S. officials from successive administrations have historically viewed Libya through the singular lens of some other U.S. policy priority, assigning it the role of a supporting actor a larger strategic drama: the quest for energy security, the fight against terrorism—especially the Islamic State, which set up a powerful affiliate in Libya—and now the United States’ rivalry with so-called great powers that many in Washington see playing out across the African continent and in the Middle East. As a result, the United States and its allies have pursued contradictory policies in Libya that have empowered an array of venal Libyan personalities and let the country more fragmented.

Relatedly, U.S. officials have often sacrificed the North African state on the altar of other, more pressing policy imperatives in the Middle East—namely, Iran and the Arab-Israel conflict—when they believe the United States requires the support of key Arab states such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, two habitual interferers in Libyan politics. According to this calculus, transgressions by these Arab partners in Libya, including breaking the arms embargo, enabling Haftar’s illegal bid for power and war crimes, and killing civilians in drone strikes, did not merit the expenditure of U.S. diplomatic capital in the form of a firm rebuke or pushback.

The United States’ distance from and disinterest in Libya has also produced a myopic reading of the country’s complex challenges.

The current fixation on a “Libyan-led” process toward parliamentary and presidential elections is a case in point. Holding those elections by the late fall or winter of this year is the centerpiece of an ambitious roadmap unveiled by the new U.N. envoy to Libya, the veteran Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily. The United States and other Western states say they are enthusiastically backing this plan, but it is fraught with pitfalls, lacking in details, and seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

There’s no question that the Libyan people want and deserve a legitimate, elected executive authority after more than a decade of ineffective appointed transitional governments and rump legislative bodies. But as it is currently construed, Bathily’s plan cedes too much control over the convening of elections to a coterie of avaricious Libyan politicos and militia bosses who benefit from the frozen status quo and are exploiting the election’s procedural and legal questions—over candidate eligibility, sequencing, and the powers of the presidency—to stall, obstruct, or otherwise shift balloting in their favor.

With so much subterfuge underway, it is nearly impossible that voting will occur on schedule, and if by some miracle it does it is likely to be marred by insecurity or violence, boycotting, and lack of free campaigning and ballot counting. In one of many worst-case post-election scenarios, Haftar might claim to win the south and east and accuse the other districts of fraud, leading to the further dissolution of the country—something that the elections are intended to avert.

All of this suggests that U.S. policymakers, following the United Nations’ lead, seem to have unrealistic expectations about what voting by itself will accomplish, especially when Libya’s political, financial, and military institutions remain so fragmented and leading figures have escaped accountability for past crimes. As in the past, elections seem to be an end to themselves, with little forethought given to the day after voting.

For many Libyans, then, and for those of us foreigners on the ground in Libya during the previous elections in 2012 and 2014—when nationwide voting didn’t put an end to Libya’s conflicts and divisions but merely reconfigured them—and in 2021, when another United Nations plan didn’t produce elections at all, Bathily’s roadmap elicits a sinking feeling of familiarity.

To be clear, U.S. development assistance policies toward Libya at the local level have been commendable and comprehensive, focused on bolstering civil society; promoting human rights, justice, and peacebuilding; training journalists; running workshops for elected municipal governments; and helping Libyan citizens adapt to the looming challenges of climate change. But none of this important work can be effectively done from outside the country or even from the confines of a fortress-like embassy—a truism that Stevens recognized and put into practice during his time as ambassador. And while he may have pushed the limits of person-to-person diplomacy, much has changed in the past decade in how the State Department deals with risks and protects its diplomats abroad.

Sensibly applying these improved security measures to Libya when reopening the U.S. embassy—while avoiding quick-fix solutions and grounding U.S. policy in local Libyan realities—is the best way to honor Stevens’s legacy and help Libyans achieve the future they deserve.


Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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