(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Trump administration’s desultory Libya policy has left the U.S. helpless as its friends fight each other, its enemies grab strategic resources and American credibility sinks into the Saharan quicksand.
The Libyan civil war is now at a dangerous inflection point: Government and rebel forces are facing off over the port city of Sirte, hometown of the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi and gateway to a coastal stretch of oil export terminals known as the “oil crescent.” But thanks to President Trump’s equivocal positions over the conflict, the U.S. finds itself with little leverage over either side.
The latest demonstration of the perils of American ambivalence is the seizure of vital oil facilities in the North African country by Russian mercenaries, undeterred by U.S. warnings to steer clear. The Trump administration’s feeble response has been to sanction the Russian businessman who employs the mercenaries. This is no more likely to deter Moscow than the U.S. Africa Command publishing satellite images of Russian military jets in the Jufra airbase in May: Despite being called out, Moscow didn’t withdraw the planes.
In recent weeks, Trump has himself attempted to intervene in the Libyan civil war, by calling the principal foreign patrons of the two sides, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who supports the government, and Egypt’s General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who supports the rebels, and urging them to support a negotiated settlement. Neither has since shown the slightest intention of reining in their favored belligerents. If anything, Egypt has ratcheted up tensions, with its parliament last week approving a direct military intervention in Libya.
Trump’s late, limp effort to broker a truce in Libya is doomed to go the way of his administration’s other attempts at peacemaking in the Arab world — from the disastrous “deal of the century” for the Israelis and Palestinians, to failed mediation between Egypt and Ethiopia over a giant dam on the Blue Nile, to its inability to end the feud between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In Libya, the failure is a direct consequence of Trump’s refusing to pick a side. Although the U.S. formally recognizes the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, it has at various times viewed the rebel Libyan National Army as an ally in the fight against Islamist extremism — never mind that the rebels count Islamist extremists among their fastest friends. Trump, with his characteristic fondness for authoritarians, has praised the rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.
Trump’s vacillation can be explained at least in part by the support that both Sarraj and Haftar receive from American allies; more to the point, both are championed by tough guys the president greatly admires.
On Sarraj’s side is Turkey’s Erdogan, the world leader whose frequent calls to the White House are instantly put through to Trump. There’s also Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.
The rebels are backed principally by Egypt’s Sisi, Trump’s “favorite dictator,” and the United Arab Emirates, whose de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, enjoys enormous clout in Washington. And then, of course, they have the support of the toughest of tough guys: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who meddles in Libya principally through the mercenary forces of the Wagner Group. (Haftar also has Emmanuel Macron in his camp, although Trump has long since lost his fondness for France’s president.)
Unable to choose one side and incapable of mediating between them, Trump can only threaten economic punishment. But sanctions have limited effect in a civil war, especially when the prize — control of enormous oil wealth — is so valuable. As a result, in Libya as in much of the Arab world, the U.S. is doomed to be a mere spectator.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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