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.
Trump’s language about Haftar last week was telling: He cited Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism,” in his statement describing the call he had conducted with the general days earlier. There was no record of a phone call between Trump and the prime minister Washington backs, Fayez Sarraj. Since well before the Trump administration, the counterterrorism imperative has helped justify U.S. backing for undemocratic rulers seen as partners in fighting extremists, while staying comparatively silent on restricted freedoms, political prisoners, and various other human-rights abuses. More recently, since the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, Haftar and others like him have attracted sympathy in Western democracies with the argument that only authoritarian rule can stabilize fragile countries, contain extremism, and halt migrant flows.
Yet it bears noting that even as the United States has supported military strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in Libya the official goal is a “stable, unified, and democratic” country, according to the State Department. Haftar, they say, can be an important part of a political solution. But the political solution he appears to have in mind—with his advance stalled for now outside Tripoli as hundreds of Libyans lie dead—has nothing to do with democracy. Officials in both the State Department and the military warned as recently as this month that Haftar was destabilizing the country, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to “stand down, move back to the negotiating table so that we can get a political resolution in Libya.” Wednesday, however, Bloomberg reported that Trump had essentially given Haftar a green light to keep going, a characterization the White House called inaccurate.
In the past, though, Haftar hasn’t been interested in negotiations. “When he met with me in the summer of 2016, General [Haftar] rejected talks with Prime Minister Sarraj to unify the country, and stated it was his intention instead to conquer enough territory so that the rest of the country would agree to make him president by acclamation,” Jonathan Winer, who served as the United States envoy for Libya during the Obama administration, wrote in a recent report.
Haftar then pledged to rid the country of “the beards” and the “Muslim Brotherhood,” through prison, exile, or the graveyard, Winer wrote. “He stated that of the three places, everyone would agree the graveyard was the best.”
Libya’s political transition disintegrated not long after Muammar Qaddafi was toppled in 2011. Barack Obama called “failing to plan for the day after” the U.S. intervention that helped dislodge him one of the biggest regrets of his presidency, and partly blamed the Europeans for not following up to secure the peace. The Europeans, in turn, bore some of the consequences of Libya’s descent into chaos and factionalism, as the country became a transit hub for migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.
Most of the countries rocked by the 2011 revolts ended up taking vastly different paths, albeit to some similar places. Libya never really achieved a unified, elected government exercising control over all its territory; since 2016, it’s been split between two rival governments, only one of them internationally recognized, but forced to rely on militias for protection. If the country is to be reunified under a military strongman, which appears to be Haftar’s aim, he would have to wage a viciously bloody campaign to do it.
In Libya, the pre-2011 rulers consisted of a clique of Qaddafi, loyalist military officers, and loyalist tribes, Steven A. Cook, whose recent book False Dawn deals with the failures of democratic transitions following the Arab Spring protests, told me: “I think you could see a return of, without Qaddafi, loyalist military officers and loyalist tribes trying to put the whole thing back together.” Haftar was once loyal to Qaddafi himself.
The counterterrorism challenge in Libya, meanwhile, is real. The Islamic State at one point had its own territorial stronghold in the Libyan city of Sirte, before militias backed by U.S. air strikes dislodged them. The New York Times has reported that the battle for Tripoli has become a magnet for extremist groups who themselves oppose Haftar, rendering his vows to fight terrorists a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, government resources have been diverted from the counter-ISIS fight to the battle with Haftar.
If the mixed signals from Washington have created more confusion on the ground, much deadlier problems are potentially on the horizon. “A lot of Libyans are split with regard to what they think should be done,” Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told me. He pointed out that Haftar has his own substantial base of support: “This might become a war of attrition … It might become urban warfare.” Tripoli, he noted, is a city of 2.5 million people.
“The main thing about an international endorsement,” he said, “especially from Trump or from the U.S. in general, is it might, under the label of counterterrorism, allow the disproportionate use of violence.”
The leader of Libya’s internationally backed Government of National Accord, Sarraj, told Bloomberg he’d been assured the U.S. administration still opposed the assault and condemned Haftar’s other international backers, whom he did not name, though the news organization pointed out that the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt have armed Haftar’s group in the past. There’s no indication that they feel pressure from the United States to change sides. Powerful Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed Haftar because they see him as tough on Islamists.
Just days after Sisi met Trump at the White House, the Egyptian ruler welcomed Haftar to his presidential palace in Cairo, as if meeting with another head of state.
The president possibly aside, the U.S. government has portrayed Haftar as a threat. The new head of U.S. forces in Africa, for example, recently said in written answers to Congress that paramilitary groups, including Haftar’s, were exploiting the government’s weakness for their own gain. “These forces are driven by their own self-interest and leverage transactional relationships,” he wrote. “This makes the paramilitary forces a dynamic and destabilizing factor in the security of Libya.”
He included a warning about the paramilitaries that now, in the wake of Trump’s phone call and the confusion that followed, appears prophetic.
“Allegiances can change without notice.”