By Jo Becker and Eric Schmitt
February 7, 2018
Last March, the Pentagon’s top general for Africa made a rare trip to Capitol Hill, bearing a sobering double-barrelled warning.
“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers.
But perhaps just as concerning, he indicated, were intelligence reports that Russia was helping a former Libyan general turned military strongman in a fight for control over the country’s government and vast oil resources. In fact, just two months earlier, in a brazen assertion of the Kremlin’s growing Middle East ambitions, Russia’s only aircraft carrier had entered Libyan waters and, with great fanfare, welcomed aboard the militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
During his campaign for president, Donald J. Trump made the United States-backed NATO operation that toppled Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a cornerstone of his critique of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. The 2011 intervention left Libya with duelling governments — one recognized by the United States and the international community, the other aligned with General Haftar. In the chaos, Libya also became a safe haven for the Islamic State.
But despite a terrorist attack in Britain last spring whose Libyan roots offered a gruesome reminder that the Islamic State in Libya remains a deadly threat, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at a coherent policy for the country. On one hand, the president has said he sees no role for the United States in Libya; on the other, he has said the United States must fight the Islamic State there. The resulting policy vacuum, according to Libyan officials, American military commanders and intelligence analysts, has helped Russia spread its growing influence in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
For months, the questions around Mr. Trump and Russia have largely focused on a different issue: whether anyone in the president’s inner circle was complicit in Moscow’s effort to disrupt the 2016 election. But even as the president’s approach to Libya offers a case study of what critics say is the dysfunction that permeates his overall foreign policy, it also illustrates the curious dynamic that characterizes his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In openly courting General Haftar, the Kremlin was testing one of the incoming American president’s guiding foreign policy assumptions — that he could work with Mr. Putin to tackle thorny issues in the Muslim world — and instead sent a signal to the world that Russia would continue to pursue its own interests there. Yet, as has often been the case when it comes to Mr. Putin, there has been little to no resistance on Mr. Trump’s watch. The president himself has said nothing, and the State Department seems at odds with the Pentagon’s wary assessment of the Russian threat.
In December, Mr. Trump met privately with the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Serraj, in Washington. In an interview, two senior White House aides argued that the United States was fully engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to the country’s civil strife. But the Libyan leader left with no policy pronouncements from the president. Indeed, the administration has deferred the difficult job of brokering a diplomatic settlement almost entirely to the United Nations.
In Libya, as elsewhere, Mr. Trump has been guided largely by his own instincts and by a small circle of advisers who have his ear but little in-country experience. That is because a year into the president’s tenure, many critical foreign policy positions remain vacant or recently filled. The top Africa specialist overseeing Libya at the National Security Council was not installed until early September, and there is currently no American ambassador.
Efforts to arrive at a comprehensive American strategy have also been hampered by infighting between top political advisers, who have argued that foreign entanglements in places like Libya are not in keeping with Mr. Trump’s “America First” campaign promise, and top Pentagon and national security officials, who have urged the president to do more to combat the Islamic State there.
The crossfire has left Libyan officials, Western allies and even some in the United States embassy responsible for the country perplexed, as Libya policy has careened from a hands-off approach to a more recent spate of scattershot airstrikes against ISIS fighters who have regrouped in Libya since the president’s election.
“What U.S. policy in Libya?” Martin Kobler, the former United Nations special envoy there, asked in an interview with The New York Times shortly before he stepped down last summer.