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Libya unlikely to be priority whoever wins US elections

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.

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