Deciphering Trump’s surprising stance on Libya

The White House comment praising Haftar for “securing Libya’s oil resources” is likely connected to its Iran policy.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, April 13. (Reuters)
Uncertain outcome. Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, April 13. (Reuters)

Like his Syria policy, which went through several contradictory iterations in 2018, US President Donald Trump has upended his Libya policy with his recent phone call to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar.

In a White House readout of the April 15 call, which was not reported until April 19, Trump “recognised Field-Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”

While the statement added that the “two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” the first part was interpreted as an endorsement of Haftar’s military offensive against the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli and his attempt to take over the country.

This praise of Haftar came a week after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated before a congressional committee that the Trump administration has made it “clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.”

Trump’s statement caused astonishment the world over, not only because he seemed to contradict his own top diplomat but also because the United States had been supporting the UN effort to foster reconciliation between Libya’s two rival governments, the drafting of a new constitution and new elections.

Not lost on others was the fact that Trump afforded Haftar great respect by referring to him by his self-anointed title of “field-marshal.” The Trump administration, joining Russia, opposed a British-drafted UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Libya.

It appears this reversal of policy caught the State Department off guard. An anonymous State Department official told the Washington publication Politico that “our people on the ground [in the region] are dealing with the fallout.”

Even Trump’s erstwhile ally in Congress, US Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed surprise. The South Carolina Republican stated in an interview while visiting Tunisia that Trump’s phone call “has created a sense of imbalance” among the Libyan parties and he called on the administration to underscore that the United States was not picking one group over another and would “reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya.”

After the gist of Trump’s phone call was released publicly, the State Department tried to play catch-up. A department statement, issued April 22, reiterated the White House praise of Haftar but added that all parties needed “to return to the political process.” That last clause seemed to walk back, to some degree, the new policy in an effort to mollify critics.

What is behind this change of policy?

First, as was the case with Syria, Trump seems to make policy on the fly. He has a disdain for the inter-agency process that other presidents have followed and, as he said in 2018, he is the only person who matters in the conduct of US foreign policy.

Second, Trump seems to be influenced to a large degree by foreign officials with whom he meets or calls. It is probably not a coincidence that his phone call to Haftar came shortly after Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s visit to the White House.

Sisi has been a strong supporter of Haftar — both share an antipathy towards Islamists of all political stripes — and clearly wants him to succeed. Trump had also recently spoken on the phone to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, another strong supporter of Haftar and opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Third, the new policy seems to have been spurred on by US national security adviser John Bolton, who seems to think Haftar may be the saviour on the white horse. Bolton has disdain for the United Nations and may not care that Trump’s praise of Haftar and silence on the military offensive caused deep concern among UN officials.

Although this is not the first time that a national security adviser has prevailed over a secretary of state, the episode probably reflects Bolton’s increasing influence on Trump.

Fourth, there is likely an Iran angle to this story. With Bolton pushing hard for a worldwide embargo on Iranian oil exports, especially now that the administration has announced there would be no more sanctions waivers granted to countries purchasing Iranian oil, he understands that other countries need to pump more oil to make up for any shortfall in order to keep prices stable.

Although the Trump administration has asked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to increase production for this purpose, that may not be enough. The price of oil has risen 43% since the beginning of 2019 and oil experts are predicting a tight market through 2020 — a US presidential election year.

Hence, having Libya supposedly stabilised under a strongman who would increase oil production would be highly beneficial from Trump’s perspective. The White House comment praising Haftar for “securing Libya’s oil resources” is likely connected to its Iran policy.

The problem for Trump is that Haftar may not succeed in his quest for total control of Libya — his offensive on Tripoli has stalled — and that ongoing violence could further disrupt Libya’s oil production. It would not be surprising, therefore, that Trump will change his new Libya policy as realities set in, all the while claiming, like his Syria policy, there was no reversal.