The policy reversal came as a surprise in part because Mr. Hifter’s forces also appear to be losing ground. His promises of a quick victory have proved false, and his forces appear outmaneuvered by those aligned against them. Most analysts say that he has little hope of exerting his authority over all of Libya any time soon, so his continued campaign may only prolong the country’s instability.
In the meantime, the battle for Tripoli has now diverted the attention of most of the Libyan militias that had been engaged in combating the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, said Frederic Wehrey, an expert on Libya at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It is nuts,” Mr. Wehrey said of Mr. Trump’s statement. “Even judging by the hard-nosed American goals of stabilizing the flow of oil and combating terrorism, this is completely shocking.”
The last time Trump endorsed a policy shift in the region as reckless and arbitrary as this one was probably when he decided to back the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, and my guess is that this shift has been made for many of the same bad reasons. Much like the start of the Qatar crisis, Trump appears to be doing whatever the Saudis and UAE want him to do, and he apparently thinks that it has something to do with combating terrorism (probably because that is what the Saudis and UAE have told him). The absurdity of Trump’s position is that the escalation of civil war in Libya relieves pressure on the local ISIS affiliate and undermines current U.S. policy, and Trump’s backing of Haftar contradicts the position that his own officials took less than three weeks ago. The Washington Post also reported on the reversal:
Trump’s call with Hifter “pretty much undermines seven or eight years of U.S. policy,” including during Trump’s first two years, said Ben Fishman, who served as director for Libya at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Our policy was to support a U.N.-backed peace process.” By describing Hifter as a counterterrorism partner and “someone who would protect the oil fields,” Fishman said, “it sure sounds to me that [Trump] is playing favorites.”
If Haftar had somehow succeeded in taking the capital, Trump’s decision to take his side might at least make sense as a matter of de facto recognition that he was winning, but instead he offers this encouragement after the offensive had already stalled. Embracing Haftar will help to prolong and intensify the conflict, and that in turn will create more refugees, many of whom will likely perish at sea in their attempts to reach Europe. It is possible that other administration officials will try to walk back Trump’s apparent embrace of Haftar, but knowing Bolton and Pompeo they are more likely to go along with it and spin it as much as they can. But there is only so much that they will be able to do to spin a destructive and destabilizing move like this:
“It’s a huge boon to his offensive,” Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington said of Mr. Haftar. “For the first time you have this very personal endorsement that elevates Haftar putting him in direct communication with the most powerful leader in the world.”
By encouraging Haftar’s offensive, Trump is giving jihadists a reprieve while he indulges reckless clients in their power play to the detriment of Libya’s people and regional stability.