US ups Libyan effort, upgrading its ambassador to 'special envoy'

The special envoy role in US diplomacy generally carries with it direct access to the White House. Purely as an ambassador Norland would have been responsible for day-to-day relations with Libya and reported through his boss, secretary of state, Anthony Blinken.

Wednesday 12/05/2021
A file picture shows Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar meeting with US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the German capital Berlin, January 2020. (AFP)
A file picture shows Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar meeting with US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the German capital Berlin, January 2020. (AFP)

TRIPOLI - In a sign that Washington now is reengaging actively in Libya, the Biden administration has named career diplomat Richard Norland as the US special envoy to the country. Given that Norland has already been the US ambassador in Libya since 2019, it seems clear that the US president wants to be more closely involved in the country’s still perilous path to unity.

The special envoy role in US diplomacy generally carries with it direct access to the White House. Purely as an ambassador Norland would have been responsible for day-to-day relations with Libya and reported through his boss, secretary of state, Anthony Blinken.

“In his role as US special envoy, Ambassador Norland will lead US diplomatic efforts to promote international support for a Libyan-led, inclusive and negotiated political solution to the conflict, facilitated through the UN,” explained the State Department.

Norland was closely, some protested too closely, involved in the UN-led process by which it selected 74 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) to chose members of an interim government, charged with overseeing a constitutional referendum and elections this December.

There were claims that Egypt and Turkey, with strong support from the US was attempting to force the selection of a list consisting of Ageela Saleh, the head of the House of Representatives, Osma Juwaili head of Western Forces and Abdulmajid Saif al-Nasr representing the south for membership of the Presidency Council. The then interior minister, Fathi Bashagha from Misrata was supposed to be part of this list as candidate for the post of Prime Minister.

Norland immediately rounded on the allegations saying “The suggestion that the US is trying to ‘force’ a particular outcome at the LPDF is old thinking and an insult to the Libyan people who have invested their hopes in this process’’.

American envoys to Libya are still relocated to the fortress-like US embassy in Tunis and there has been no news of when they might return to Tripoli. They were pulled out of the embassy on the capital’s Airport Road in July 2014 in the face of growing armed clashes . Shortly afterwards the US residential complex was invaded by militiamen but the embassy and chancellory were left alone.

One observer described Norland as “a listener”, a talent which appears to be borne out by his past diplomatic assignments. For three years before the signing of the UK-Irish Good Friday Agreement, he was a political counsellor at the US embassy in Dublin. Among his postings before this he was deputy chief of the US mission in Afghanistan (2005-2007) and three years earlier he had worked in the country with a US Army civil affairs team promoting political and economic reconstruction in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Norland has been in touch with all Libya’s political players, including Khalifa Hafar with whom he first talked in Abu Dhabi in 2019, ahead of the international Bonn Libya conference.

The son of a US diplomat, he was born in Morocco and grew up in Africa and Europe as well as America. His official biography has him as speaking French, Russian and Norwegian but does not mention Arabic. He had not previously served anywhere in the Arab world.