- - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What should Donald Trump do about Libya?

On paper, the White House supports the current U.N.-mediated dialogue and elections scheduled for September. That’s still the best way to sort out the fragmentation and disarray that resulted when Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in 2011.

But behind the scenes, mischief is afoot. The president, like some nations in Europe, wants stability at all cost. And he’s flirting — dangerously — with the idea of allowing former military strongman Khalifa Haftar to be installed as the country’s supreme ruler.

It started during the 2016 campaign, according to Emadeddin Mustassen, a noted Libya expert. An aide to Mr. Trump with ties to Mr. Haftar organized a tour of Mr. Haftar’s inner circle to meet with Mr. Trump’s campaign and with members of Congress.

With that foothold established, last month Mr. Haftar quietly retained two prominent Washington lobbying firms to help build support for his return to power.

Shockingly, these are mainstream — indeed, bipartisan — lobbying groups, including Keystone Strategies, the brainchild of Ari Mittleman, a former top aide to Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey. The other is the Grassroots Political Consulting, a firm known for level-headed business advocacy.

The two groups plan to spend some $600,000 over the next six months to portray Mr. Haftar and his family as the “saviors” of Libya.

Why is Mr. Trump appearing to undermine official U.S. policy? For one thing, Mr. Haftar seems to fit the president’s idea of a tough autocratic leader who can keep a country together, by force if necessary.

And there’s oil at stake — lots of it — mainly for Europe which is dependent on Libyan supplies and also hopes to exploit the country’s vast reserves.

Mr. Trump has a point in fact: Toppling Gadhafi without much of a follow-up plan invited chaos. Even Barack Obama appears to agree with that assessment now.

Even worse, the Obama pullback from Libya following the attack on the compound in Benghazi that resulted in the death of former Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012 created just the kind of power void in Libya that Mr. Trump’s doctrine of “principled realism” abhors.

But it’s too late to turn back the clock. Gadhafi is gone and Mr. Haftar, a former CIA asset who has long harbored putschist ambitions, is a throwback to an undemocratic era that Libya has already left behind.

Mr. Haftar is also a huge liability, politically. He’s been credibly accused of war crimes for executing three dozen ISIS prisoners in 2016. This is no small matter. The International Criminal Court plans to try Mr. Haftar. As an American citizen, he is also vulnerable to prosecution in U.S. courts.

There are also reports of human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Even if Mr. Haftar could hold onto power, he would be unlikely to gain the legitimacy he needs to rule.

Second, Mr. Haftar is openly defying the U.N.-mediated dialogue and undermining what diplomatic support for him remains. A month ago, his supporters attacked polling stations in areas under his control (drawing a rebuke from the CIA station chief in Rome). His supporters also threatened the life of a top Libyan official who dared criticize Mr. Haftar’s human rights record.

And just last week, Mr. Haftar boldly declared that Libya “might not be ready for democracy.”

For the past two years, Mr. Haftar has counted on diplomatic support from Russia and France to keep his putschist hopes alive. But Russia is backing away and France is trying to pressure Mr. Haftar into accepting the U.N. plan that Mr. Haftar insists is “null and void.”

Israel, on the heels of a new strategic understanding with the United States, has agreed to provide covert arms and weapons support to the Libyan warlord. That support — a stopgap perhaps — could keep Mr. Haftar afloat. It might also allow Washington to gain new leverage over him. In theory.

There was a time when American officials saw Mr. Haftar, who was once a paid CIA asset, as vital to the future of Libya. His past efforts to remove Gadhafi by force were actively encouraged. But it’s a whole new ballgame now. The world community expects expect Mr. Haftar to compete for power through the ballot box.

But it’s not clear Mr. Trump does. Instead, forces inside and outside the White House seem intent on abetting Mr. Haftar’s ambitions, even at the expense of sabotaging the peace process, and plunging Libya into interminable civil war.

Many Libyans are waiting for a sign from Washington that it is okay to safely ignore Mr. Haftar — unless he stops trying to undermine the nation’s fragile peace process.

Mr. Trump has yet to give that sign.

The president — through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley perhaps — needs to disabuse Mr. Haftar of the idea that America might welcome his return to power by force. Publicly supporting the country’s pro-democratic forces would go along way toward eliminating the impression of favoritism toward Mr. Haftar.

Maybe the old warlord still has a constructive role to play. If so, let him stand for election and prove it.

Stewart Lawrence is a Washington writer.

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