US experts call for new US engagement in Libya

"Libya has been a major source of foreign fighters and terrorists in Iraq and Syria since 2003, with total numbers of its jihadists reaching well into the thousands."
Thursday 14/03/2019
In this May, 2017 file photo, members of the Libyan National Army (LNA), also known as the forces loyal to Marshal Khalifa Haftar, clash with jihadists in Benghazi's Al-Hout market area. (AFP)
In this May, 2017 file photo, members of the Libyan National Army (LNA), also known as the forces loyal to Marshal Khalifa Haftar, clash with jihadists in Benghazi's Al-Hout market area. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Almost seven years after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Brookings Institution scholars argued for “reinvigorated American engagement” in Libya, including sending a new US ambassador.

“Libya is an issue that we sometimes prefer not to prioritise,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings. Instead, he said, the West tends to worry more about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Yemen.

The recent Brookings report said there are security imperatives that justify new attention on Libya.

“Libya has been a major source of foreign fighters and terrorists in Iraq and Syria since 2003, with total numbers of its jihadists reaching well into the thousands — contributing to the highly unstable state of much of the Levant today,” the report stated.

It noted that, since 2011, “Libya has also been a source of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe from or through its territory.”

The report said stability in Libya was a possibility in a country with a homogeneous population and sizeable natural resources.

Authors of the report said Washington should build on the momentum created by a recent meeting between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which offers an opportunity to make a difference in Libya “involving only limited cost and risk.”

The Brookings report, “Empowered Decentralisation: A City-Based Strategy for Rebuilding Libya,” recommended sending in a US diplomatic team, working with the United Nations, moving towards consensus-building, reducing outside influence and creating a new government moving from cities outward.

“As an essential element of this leadership,” the report stated, “the United States should return Americans and a US Embassy and ambassador to Libya. We propose a new US approach to Libya that centres on the concept of reinvigorated American engagement.”

The report said the United States should “try to deconflict the roles of a half dozen or so external players that have engaged in proxy competition within Libya.”

Karim Mezran, resident senior fellow for the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said the group hoped the plan could bring dignity and human rights to the Libyan people, as well as a popular, pluralist, constitutionally based government.

“We really need a superpower… to come and help the United Nations to guide this nation during this very important moment,” Mezran said. “We have to understand their guidance is essential.”

The Brookings report recommended that “much of the emphasis should shift to local actors — elected municipal governments, supportive militias that are willing to abide by higher standards of behaviour and cease criminal misconduct, and civil society groups.”

“Significant economic, political and security activity would then centre on the country’s dozen to 15 major cities. Criteria would be established for how local entities could qualify for their fair-share allotment of oil revenues and international aid,” it said.

The report recommended “an oversight board and a financial mechanism to empower local governments in Libya, while also offering incentives to the militia groups to improve their behaviour.”

Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he recently returned from Libya. While in Tripoli, there was a sense of unease and anticipation, he said. Militias were “out in force” and people faced long lines at banks.

“There’s a sense that things are stuck at the top,” he said, adding that the political system is frozen. Still, he went to an art gallery, which he called “thriving.”

“There is life in this city,” he said. When he talked to people, they said the report validated what they felt.

Federica Saini Fasanotti, non-resident senior fellow for foreign policy at the Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said the report’s authors found a city-based system was best because it allowed the different groups to have a voice.

O’Hanlon, however, said they don’t want to see a system of city-states. The report said there was interaction between the different cities but said consensus and nation-building would be a “gradual, iterative” process: The militias will not “simply disarm.”

Brookings President John Allen said he had a message for the people of Libya:

“We, in this task force, know your trials continue to be great,” he said, “but also know the American people and American allies have not forgotten you. We want you to know we stand with you.”

Libyan Ambassador to the United States Wafa Bugaighis said there she saw a rationale for a different kind of attention paid to Libya. “We know a cookie-cutter approach will not work in the Middle East and North Africa,” she said.