A warlord’s forces swept across a fractured country and fought the internationally recognized government to a stalemate outside the capital city, and another Arab nation suddenly faced the specter of military rule. And in a recent, ambiguous statement issued after a phone call with the man in charge of that offensive, President Donald Trump seemed to signal he would be fine with that.
Trump has repeatedly expressed support for authoritarian rulers across the Middle East. Now he has praised a warlord—Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan general who aspires to be the country’s next ruler and is leading his forces against the government the United States still officially backs.
A new and potentially violent chapter is opening in the story of the 2011 Arab uprisings, many of which have curdled into violence or dictatorship since they began in Tunisia. That country has achieved a fragile democracy. But every other experiment has gone awry. Egypt replaced one authoritarian leader with another. Syria has endured a civil war that’s left more than half a million dead and a dictator still in charge. Yemen, too, has plunged into a catastrophic civil war. Popular revolts this year in Algeria and Sudan have driven out strongman leaders but so far left intact, and in charge, the systems that produced them. And after early pronouncements of support for democratic change in the region, the United States has effectively resigned itself to dealing with strongmen rather than pushing hard for democratic change.