Predictably, most of the attention given to foreign policy in the Middle East this election season in the United States has focused on Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State (ISIS). To the extent that Libya has been mentioned, it is in relation to the expansion of ISIS in the country or, more often, the 2011 NATO intervention and its aftermath.
Libya will surely not be the new president’s immediate foreign policy priority on his or her first day in office. Given the numerous foreign-policy challenges facing the United States and the Benghazi-focused rhetoric that surrounded any discussion of Libya, the next president is unlikely to have much of an appetite for serious investment of resources aimed at stabilising the country.
This is bad news for US Secretary of State John Kerry, European stakeholders in Libya and the Libyan people.
Even amid a chaotic global backdrop, Kerry has actively pushed for a political solution to the crisis in Libya and put his support behind the Libyan Political Agreement and the Government of National Accord (GNA). He has had multiple ministerial meetings over the past year with his European counterparts to reaffirm commitment to supporting the Libyan people and the GNA.
On October 31st in London, Kerry and representatives from Britain, Italy, France, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia met with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the governor of the Libyan National Bank, Saddek al-Kabir. The meeting was called for at the insistence of the United States to address Libya’s dire economic state and to help resolve a dispute between Sarraj and Kabir over key reforms and the control of Libya’s resources.
While it is unclear what tangible effect, if any, the meeting will have on Libya’s fractured centres of power, Kerry’s efforts towards strengthening the GNA’s authority and the ability of Libya’s institutions to meet the needs of the people are evident.
The top diplomat in a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration is unlikely to follow Kerry’s lead on Libya.
Trump’s statements on action in Libya, like much of his foreign policy rhetoric, have been both questionable and notably aggressive. While Trump has denied that he supported the intervention in Libya in 2011, he has been vocal in backing military efforts against ISIS in the country, even suggesting that the United States seize oilfields there from ISIS. This suggestion ignores the fact that the group does not control Libya’s oil resources.
The secretary of State in a Trump administration would be unlikely to invest resources in diplomatic efforts aimed at boosting the GNA’s authority and easing political divisions in Libya. Rather, a Trump administration would likely take a narrow approach aimed at defeating ISIS in Sirte, ignoring that the terror group’s existence in Libya is an indicator, rather than the source, of the country’s instability.
A Clinton administration would also be unlikely to invest significant resources in a diplomatic push in Libya. While Clinton has stood firm in her support for intervening in Libya in 2011, her administration would be unlikely to prioritise the kind of diplomatic efforts Kerry has taken due to controversy surrounding her record in the country.
US policy in Libya under Clinton or Trump is unlikely to look much further than the defeat of ISIS in the country and it is doubtful that the incoming secretary of State will place the same emphasis that Kerry has on reaching a peaceful resolution to the political infighting in Libya.
Given this, the burden will be left to key European stakeholders to push for a solution in Libya and prioritise the strengthening of the GNA. However, without US leadership, the efficacy of the international community’s diplomatic efforts in Libya remains uncertain. More often than not, key international players in Libya seem content to pay lip service to the need to support the GNA and the Libyan people while pursuing their own interests on the ground.
A United States that is less active in Libya will do little to help the Libyan people. Although the United States has been supporting GNA-backed forces in the fight against ISIS in Sirte, neither a Clinton nor Trump administration is likely to support a post-ISIS major stabilisation effort in the city. This risks repeating the mistake the United States made in Libya in 2011 by failing to invest in significant stabilisation efforts after the NATO intervention.
Kerry’s efforts in Libya are laudable. However, it appears that the momentum of such efforts will be lost, as US-led diplomacy in Libya under the next administration will be markedly less robust. As the next administration examines the various crises across the Middle East and the globe, it is doubtful that renewed US investment in marshalling a Libyan-led peace process will make it to the top of the priority list.