While Trump Sides with Haftar, the Rest of Washington Is Unsure

President Donald Trump offered Libyan General Khalifa Haftar a surprising endorsement at a time when the general and his Libyan National Army (LNA) were threatening to besiege the capital, Tripoli, and overthrow the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Before the phone call between Haftar and Trump, Washington’s policy was predicated on backing the GNA and the UN-led peace negotiations. Though the call has not necessarily shifted official policy, Haftar and his backers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates understood Trump’s positive words as a kind of de facto policy shift in favor of General Haftar.

While Haftar enjoys the support of the White House—or more likely, appreciates Trump’s ambivalence toward conflict in Libya and his affinity for would-be strongmen—the rest of Washington is almost uniformly opposed to his offensive and the administration’s tacit support of it. Over the last week, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing on the conflict in Libya and Arab Center Washington DC held an event on the future of Libya. Speakers at both panels asserted that President Trump is pursuing the wrong policies by backing Haftar in Libya’s ongoing conflict.

Backing a Strongman

The president’s endorsement of Haftar was likely borne out of Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian assurances that Haftar was the only man capable of consolidating control in Libya and ensuring security in the country. It is well known that Trump is not exactly a studious consumer of intelligence briefings, which would have outlined the unlikelihood of any one person bringing Libya under his control by force. Instead, he evidently saw that General Haftar and his backers offered an easy solution to the complicated crisis in Libya: Haftar would take control of the country by force and ensure that the scourge of terrorism was under control. For a president with sparse knowledge of the conflict and little interest in democracy and human rights, this probably sounded enticing.

The only issue with the plan is that Haftar was always going to have a hard time overtaking Tripoli easily, never mind consolidating control over the entire spectrum of tribes and militias throughout the country. Haftar played a losing hand and encountered stiff resistance to the LNA’s march on Tripoli. Now, instead of unifying control of Libya under his control and ensuring stability, Haftar is but another driver of conflict that threatens the stability not only of Libya but the entirety of North Africa.

The Need for Political Negotiations

While Trump is comfortable with Haftar trying to fight his way to control, the rest of Washington, including Congress, is aware that the only solution to the conflict in Libya is through negotiations that aim for a political solution. Experts at both the Hill hearing and ACW event explained that, in all likelihood, there is no military solution to the crisis in Libya; they said that instead, the United States should at least support the UN-led process or exert its own power to initiate some kind of political peace process.

Of course, Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli is a clear roadblock to any political solution in the near future, but his role in any post-conflict political settlement is growing ever more uncertain. Haftar has been accused of war crimes in Libya and there is reason to suspect that although many in Libya yearn for peace and stability, many are not pleased about the prospects of a Libya ruled by General Haftar. In Washington, a group of House members are stirring to make Haftar persona non grata by labeling him a war criminal; they are also considering leveraging Haftar’s status as a US citizen to have him indicted for his crimes under US law. This, surely, would prevent the administration from offering any more support for Haftar and it could potentially make a future Libya, in which Haftar has any significant role, a pariah in the international community.

Ultimately, experts and lawmakers in Washington have coalesced around the fact that this White House is betting on the wrong man in Libya and the United States has to take a more constructive role in helping to solve the problems facing the country. Moving forward, US policy should focus on ensuring a lasting ceasefire that brings some semblance of stability to the country and on preventing US partners from meddling in Libya’s affairs and exacerbating the crisis. Trump would be wise to lean on Haftar to allow for a peaceful solution to the conflict, one that reinforces the right of the people of Libya to determine the fate of their country without violence.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Constitutional Authorities Resolution. On May 15, Representative—and current presidential candidate—Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) introduced H.J. Res. 58, which would require the Trump Administration to obtain Congress’s consent before engaging in hostilities with Iran.

Making Iran’s Assets Available to Pay Compensatory Damages. On May 16, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Rep. Greg Pence (R-Indiana) introduced in their respective chambers S. 1529 and H.R. 2790, which would allow additional Iranian assets in US jurisdiction to be made available to satisfy payments to victims attacks blamed on Iran.

Clarifying that Congress Has Not Authorized the Use of Military Force against Iran. On May 17, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) introduced H.R. 2829 to clarify that Congress has not been consulted about nor has it authorized the use of military force against Iran.

Global Fragility Act. On May 20, the House voted under suspended rules to pass H.R. 2116, which is an initiative to fund programs to stabilize fragile states including areas in Syria and Iraq once under control of the so-called Islamic State.

Opposing the Lifting of Sanctions Imposed on Iran. On May 21, a group of Republican House members introduced H. Res. 390 expressing the sense that they do not support any effort to remove sanctions currently levied against Iran without addressing a host of Iranian activities. This resolution corresponds with one Senator Cotton introduced in the Senate last week.

Recognizing the History and Contributions of Muslims of the United States. On May 21, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), himself another presidential aspirant, introduced S. Res. 214 recognizing the history and contributions of the country’s Muslim population.

2) Hearings and Markups

The Dangers of Reporting on Human Rights. On May 16, the full House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing on the dangers journalists face around the globe when reporting on states’ abuses of human rights. This hearing was notable because Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was one of the hearing’s witnesses.

SFOPs, Defense Spending Bills Markup. Over the last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed the State and Foreign Operations budget (SFOPs) for fiscal year 2020 (H.R. 2839) and marked up the same year’s defense budget. In the Senate, the subcommittees that oversee the Department of Defense marked up the National Defense Authorization Act for the coming fiscal year. For fiscal year 2020, it looks like Democrats will likely prevail in boosting spending figures for SFOPs and defense spending could see a higher figure than the one enacted in fiscal year 2019. These budgets and authorizations will have an impact on US support for countries throughout the region, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

McConnell, McCarthy: The House Must Stand against BDS. The Republican Party’s leaders in each chamber—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California)—took to the pages of the Washington Post to call on the House to follow the Senate’s lead and pass legislation that targets the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. In the process, they conflated the economic protest of Israel for its discriminatory and oppressive policies toward Palestinians with anti-Semitism and a “political and economic attack on Israel’s right to exist.”

Lawmakers Call on White House to Assure That Ceasefire is Upheld in Northwest Syria. Three weeks ago the regime of Bashar al-Assad began an assault on the Idlib province in northwest Syria and rescue groups are warning of a severe humanitarian crisis. In addition, the Trump Administration is on alert for fear of Assad using chemical weapons in the fight for control of the province. Because the consequences of the offensive could devolve into a full blown crisis, members of the House wrote to President Trump calling on him to push for all sides in the Syrian war to uphold the ceasefire agreed to last year.

Strengthening US Leadership in an Era of Global Competition. On May 17, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, discussed US leadership in the world at a time of increased geopolitical competition. He covered a number of topics, many not directly pertinent to the Middle East and North Africa, but McCaul did laud the administration’s policies toward Iran and called on his colleagues in the House to pass the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act to support Israel.

Overwhelming Majority in Congress Wants Trump to Reevaluate Syria Policy. Last week’s report noted that 260 members of Congress—between both chambers—signed on to a letter calling on President Trump to reassess US policy in Syria. By the time members sent the letter out, nearly 400 lawmakers signed on, indicating that a majority of lawmakers in Congress question this administration’s policies toward Syria.

Representatives Seek Support for Barring Saudi Arabian Nuclear Weapons. This week, Reps. Brad Sherman (D-California) and Ted Yoho (R-Florida) circulated a letter seeking additional cosponsors for their legislation titled the Saudi Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, which would require a congressional vote on any nuclear cooperation agreement reached between Washington and Riyadh.

4) Nominations

Senate Confirms US Ambassador to Iraq. On May 16, the Senate voted to confirm Matthew Tueller as the newest ambassador to Iraq. Tueller was formerly US ambassador to Yemen.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Team Eyes Economic Stimulus for Palestinians. Trump Administration officials like Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have been working for over two years on a blueprint for their vision of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Next month, the administration will take its first step in implementing the plan Kushner and his team have crafted and it starts with an “economic workshop” on June 25-26 in Bahrain intended to induce wealthy states to invest in the occupied territories and neighboring Arab states. The prospects for the workshop’s success are debatable, however, as many prominent Palestinian business owners have declined to attend the event and Bahrain has scrambled to justify its role in hosting the session.

White House Unclear on Whether it Has Reached out to Tehran. Over the last week, as tensions between the United States and Iran have mounted, the administration has given conflicted narratives regarding any possible outreach to the leaders in Tehran.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Speaks with Sultan of Oman Amid Tensions with Iran. On May 16, Secretary Pompeo spoke with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said about the ongoing war in Yemen and about Iranian threats in the region. Many were quick to point out that Oman has often served as a conduit for talks between Washington and Iran and opined that perhaps this call was intended to reduce tensions between the two sides.

Pompeo, Shanahan Brief Congress on Iran. This week, the Trump Administration dispatched Secretaries of State and Defense Mike Pompeo and Patrick Shanahan to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the intelligence that has prompted the White House’s aggressive posturing toward Iran. Members in both the House and Senate have questioned the administration’s approach to Iran and some are even questioning whether administration officials are misrepresenting intelligence to justify their more hostile approach in the Gulf region.

Ambassador Ford Visits Israel. On May 20, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford visited Israel for discussions with Israeli officials about regional security and nonproliferation.