It seems now is a matter of formalities before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America on 20 January. It is a good time, therefore, to try to preview what his foreign policy towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region might be.
President-elect Biden stands to benefit from his eight years as vice president to Barak Obama. However, that carries certain legacies when it comes to the MENA. During the Obama presidency, it witnessed waves of popular protests — the so-called Arab Spring — that uprooted regimes and installed replacements not necessarily to Washington’s liking.
Libya is one country where such events exposed a major US foreign policy failure. Rushing to military intervention in the North African state in March 2011 was Obama’s biggest “mistake”, as he described it himself. The then Vice President Biden opposed the war in Libya but could not do much about it as his boss decided otherwise and got the US military involved in the civil war.
As Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton led on US policy in Libya and her only achievement was going to war in 2011 without any plan for what to do once the government of Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown. Biden was asked what the plan was when the decision was considered by Obama. He did not get an answer. Given that he is set to be the boss, does he have one now? In a 2016 interview, Biden said that he had warned President Obama against intervening in Libya because it could “disintegrate” the country and help make it a beacon of extremism.
That is, indeed, what Libya became after the US-led NATO military campaign in 2011; it was anything but a stable and peaceful country. In fact, it was ungovernable, with terrorist groups like Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Sharia more or less roaming freely. One early victim of the chaos was US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who was murdered before his body was dragged through the streets of Benghazi on 11 September 2012.
Obama foolishly left his entire Libya policy to Clinton. At one point she and her team in the State Department, including Susan Rice, the then US Ambassador to the United Nations, pushed strongly for war. They got their way despite objections from Biden and other top administration officials, including Pentagon chiefs.
Does President-elect Biden have any realistic plan to rescue Libya and maybe remedy Obama’s mistake? It is unlikely, as the dynamics of the conflict have changed a great deal since 2011.
Rumour has it that he might nominate Rice to be his top diplomat; she is currently a distinguished visiting research fellow at American University in Washington. It is fitting that Biden favours having more women in his cabinet, and Rice is an experienced foreign policy expert and familiar with the State Department, but she also helped to push the failed Libya policy back in 2011. Does she have anything new to offer? I think it is unlikely.
Given the current situation in Libya, it looks as if the new US president’s policy will be developed within the context of a classic superpower struggle. Russia is now a major player in the Libyan conflict through its Wagner Group mercenaries fighting in support of warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). America’s NATO ally Turkey is also heavily involved in Libya, supporting Haftar’s rival, the Government of National Accord (GNA). Earlier this year, LNA forces were pushed back from the capital Tripoli where they were close to driving the GNA out of power.
The Trump administration turned a blind eye to the LNA attack on Tripoli from the start. Haftar appeared to have been given the green light by the US to go ahead as long as he could finish the job quickly. Trump spoke to the renegade Field Marshal Haftar by telephone on 19 April last year, appraising his efforts in the “war against terror”. That was enough for Haftar to continue his attack on Tripoli.
Just like Obama, the Trump administration had no plan for Libya. Once the GNA forces defeated the LNA, Washington basically gave up apart from rather muted attempts to contain Russian expansion in North Africa.
Now the UN-led mediation efforts are gaining momentum. A new round of political dialogue is underway in Tunisia. The aim is to develop a roadmap that will lead to a short transitional period of power-sharing before elections projected for the summer of 2022.
Biden’s handling of Libya will become clear after his inauguration in January but it can be said with some degree of confidence that his Libya policy will be constrained by the parameters of the ongoing competition with Russia.
Within that context, we can expect more talk from the new administration but little action when it comes to Libya. We are likely to hear that the US supports the UN efforts in the country but nothing more. We can also expect some US manoeuvres to ease the deadlock in the UN Security Council over the appointment of new a new envoy to Libya; Ghassan Salame resigned from the post in March. Other than, President-elect Biden appears to have little to offer when it comes to settling the Libyan conflict that he opposed nine years ago.