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Former U.S. Mideast Envoy Sees Libya Spiraling Out of Control

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Four years removed from the initial optimism of the Arab Spring, you don’t have to look far to find reason for pessimism in the Middle East.

From the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, to Syria’s devastating civil war, to the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, to lawlessness in Yemen, to the recent spate of deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the region remains a cauldron of instability.

Meanwhile, in neighboring North Africa, Libya is quietly falling apart, despite once being heralded as a beacon of Arab Spring success. Intense militia warring, a faltering economy and disturbing signs of a protracted power struggle that has turned the country into a semi-failed state are keeping Libyans and their neighbors on edge. Since the mob killing of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011 and the subsequent murder of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Islamic radicals in Benghazi in 2012, the oil-rich nation has gradually slipped into chaos.

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David Mack

The tenuously elected government of Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, stationed for now in the eastern city of Tobruk, has been unable to contain fighting among well-armed militias across the country. A self-declared rival government led by Islamist-aligned groups has asserted itself in Tripoli. The clashes between a motley crew of tribes and towns have morphed into a regional proxy war, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates reportedly helping pro-government forces beat back Islamic factions. At the same time, there are worrying signs that the Islamic State itself could be gaining a foothold in the midst of the power vacuum.

In January, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for the abduction of at least 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and an armed assault on an upscale Tripoli hotel popular with foreigners. The news only served to confirm fears that Libya — already awash in Qaddafi-era weapons and violence — is spinning further out of control.

The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings strongly suggesting that U.S. citizens evacuate the country, although Ambassador Deborah Jones and other U.S. envoys continue to work in Libya.

David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, told The Diplomat that strategically important Libya is likely to re-emerge as a global priority in 2015. A former vice president at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington who worked in the U.S. mission in Benghazi in the 1970s, Mack has returned to the country many times and spent much of his diplomatic career crisscrossing the region on diplomatic troubleshooting missions. He’s now a senior scholar at MEI.

In a wide-ranging interview over breakfast at the National Press Club, Mack discussed Libya’s turmoil and outlook, the struggle between U.S. security concerns and diplomatic missions abroad and other issues.

Mack said one of Libya’s biggest problems is the absence of a strong — or even functional — government to help maintain stability.

“It was weak institutionally when Qaddafi took over. The king [Idris, who preceded Qaddafi] wasn’t interested in building national institutions,” Mack said. “But when Qaddafi came into power in 1969, he took the old Ronald Reagan adage that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem, to an extreme.”

The only government institutions the Qaddafi regime nourished were the agencies that provided for his personal protection and the revenue-generating national oil company. The army and police were marginalized and starved.

“He took authority away from the people,” Mack said. “It wasn’t that he actually closed government ministries; he would just take their authority away and cap their salaries. The employees were only showing up every two weeks to collect their paychecks.”

That extreme laissez-faire attitude toward government fostered the disorder the world now sees plaguing the entire country. The opposition that deposed Qaddafi, with the aid of NATO-backed airstrikes, actually had ambitious plans for governing, Mack said. They just weren’t able to carry them out.

“The Libyans did a good job planning and preparing for [the overthrow],” Mack said. “They had done their homework, but they couldn't implement their plans once they got on the ground.”

Mack compared the opposition to Qaddafi to the one that surfaced against Saddam Hussein in Iraq around the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, with one big difference: The Libyans felt more invested in their revolutionary uprising.

“The Libyans had great optimism after the overthrow of Qaddafi,” Mack said. “The people who came into power in Iraq always knew it had been the U.S. who had overthrown Saddam Hussein — they didn’t own their revolution.”

Mack said the Libyan public’s hopefulness following Qaddafi’s ouster was “kind of infectious” and led the United States and other global powers to think — wrongly, as it turned out — that Libya might be on the path to democratic stability, especially given the fact that it was flush with oil money and didn’t need outside financial assistance. (Libya holds the largest amount of proven crude oil reserves in Africa and the continent’s fourth-largest amount of natural gas reserves.)

“People in the U.S. government and other governments thought maybe Libya could pull this off,” Mack said. “They had a couple of elections, relatively peaceful turnovers of power. But you don’t get legitimacy just by winning an election; you get legitimacy by governing.”

Instead, the central government — democratically elected but institutionally weak — had to farm out public security to the myriad militias and rebel groups nominally under its payroll. The result was a patchwork of newly empowered groups — from the Islamists in Misrata to the pro-Qaddafi remnants in Zintan — that quickly turned on each other. But Libya’s devolution does not follow the simple, post-Arab Spring narrative of the old guard versus Islamists.

As Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in the Washington Post last July, “At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others.”

Now, United Nations intervention might be the only hope. The top U.N. official in Libya, Bernardino Léon, said a new round of U.N.-led political talks in Geneva, launched in mid-January, was a last-ditch effort to bring peace to the country. Participants, including powerbrokers throughout the nation, agreed in principle to form a “consensual national unity government and the necessary security arrangements to end the fighting,” but Léon cautioned it would be a “long process.”

“This is going to take time,” Léon told journalists in Geneva. “There is a gap between the parties, which is becoming more complicated. There is more fighting on the ground, so we will try to … help them to reach common ground. But it is not going to be easy.”

Indeed, shortly after the talks began, the rival parliament in Tripoli pulled out amid accusations that the internationally recognized government attacked the Benghazi branch of the central bank, home to nearly $100 billion in foreign reserves and the country’s substantial oil revenue. As the New York Times reported on Jan. 22, the bank’s “continued distribution of paychecks and subsidies has helped communities and families across the country stay afloat despite the collapse of most other economic activity, even maintaining a semblance of order.”

“Libya is falling really very deeply in chaos,” Léon warned. “If all these elements — the political, the security — were not enough, now we have also the very serious economic and financial chaos,” Léon said, alluding to reports that the turmoil, which has hurt oil production, may be pushing the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

“Whatever is affecting Libya is affecting the whole region,” Léon added. “It’s affecting the Mediterranean, the Middle East, it’s affecting the Sahel, Europe.”

Mack agreed that Libya’s stability is important to its neighbors not only in Africa, but across the Mediterranean Sea in Italy, France and Greece, all of whom have struggled to handle an influx of refugees fleeing the war-torn nation, which was once a critical energy partner.

“It’s important for the whole European Union because Libya, as well as Algeria, represents their way of removing the Russian power of intimidation through control of their gas and energy supplies,” Mack pointed out. “You could have a huge amount of gas and oil flowing from Libya and Algeria into the European market, which would enable them to deal with Russians without so much concern about economic consequences. That would be good. The Russians might become far more reasonable because there is a huge amount of oil and gas in Libya.”

Mack also agreed with Léon that the only way to restore stability in Libya is through a multilateral effort.

“I really don’t think there is an answer beyond international mediation at this point,” he said. “One thing this last year has proved is that the Libyans, left to themselves, really cannot come to any kind of a consensus on a unity government. That’s the near-term objective.”

The former ambassador, whose diplomatic assignments included Iraq, Jordan, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, also warned that the unity government could include some characters that the United States and other Western powers may view as unsavory, to say the least.

“That unity government is going to have to include not just the constitutionally recognized government in Tobruk,” he said. “It’s going to have to include some people who have got enough power on the ground, but who at least are not jihadists who are out there trying to kill us and kill a lot of civilians. These people may not be our first choice but they really represent something important and they have to be included.”

Mack said the government will likely need representation from somebody like Khalifa Haftar, a controversial ex-general in the Qaddafi regime whom the BBC described as having been on “different sides of almost every power struggle in Libya since the 1960s.” After a stint in exile near Langley, Va., in the 2000s — when he was widely rumored to be working with the CIA against Qaddafi — Haftar is now back in Libya building support among disparate armed militias to push back against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist-leaning groups. The military campaign Haftar launched to claw back territory from Islamists has further polarized the country, with at least 600 killed in Benghazi over the last three months alone; a tentative ceasefire was announced in January ahead of the U.N. talks in Geneva.

“He has done some things that I don’t think are very pretty but we have to consider the interests of our allies — not just our European allies, but our Arab allies, as well,” Mack said. “They want to see a little more stability there and they are not so interested in legitimacy and elections. The Egyptians, Tunisians and Algerians have long borders with this country.”

Mack turned reflective when the subject of Ambassador Chris Stevens’s death in Benghazi comes up. He recalled that the State Department had a mission in Benghazi in the early 1970s but closed it because of security concerns.

“I closed that post in the summer of ’72 and I was certain then that we would never reopen a post in Benghazi, even though I had made a case for doing it because most of the oil was down there. It was very different politically than western Libya, but you couldn’t make the case in terms of splitting [the State Department’s diplomatic] presence that way. It would have been very insecure.

“We didn't have any protection — no guards at all,” he added. “There wasn’t even a Libyan policeman at the front door, just a receptionist.”

Mack said he saw similarities between his younger diplomatic self and Stevens, an extraordinarily adventurous and well-liked ambassador who died at age 52 after a celebrated career.

“I knew Chris well,” Mack said, noting that he first met Stevens when the younger diplomat took an assignment in Damascus, Syria. “When you’re young and idealistic, you think all you have to do is know the language well, understand the culture, keep a low profile, be nice to people, polite, keep your ears and eyes open and you’ll get along. That works actually pretty well for a young officer and that’s why guys like Chris Stevens are able to advance in the ranks.”

But as the posts get more high profile, the dangers increase — no matter how well you’re liked.

“If you get to be an ambassador’s deputy or an ambassador, you suddenly become a symbol of something that only maybe 5 percent of the people in the country hate, but that’s all it takes.”

Mack recalled his assignment in the Middle East in 1983 when an obscure group calling itself “Islamic Jihad” claimed responsibility for the deaths of 299 American and French service members in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. Mack said the incident recalibrated U.S. thinking about the nexus of diplomacy and security.

“After that, for people in the Foreign Service, security issues — keeping yourself alive — became really important,” Mack recalled. “You didn’t go anywhere without varying your routes, you didn’t go anywhere without telling someone. It just became much more complicated.”

Mack suggested that today’s security concerns hobble the work of diplomacy.

“It’s way too dominant in your thinking these days, and it makes it really hard for people on the scene to do their jobs,” he said. “[T]o have people assassinated or even worse, taken hostage, just distorts your politics toward a country. Your policy becomes dominated by it … the American public is asking, ‘What are you doing about this?’ — it becomes a kind of inescapable reality of our politics.”

Having said that, Mack stresses that security concerns should not eclipse the will to get the job done in Libya.

“We know there are a lot of bad people down there,” he said. “We know there are a lot of nasty weapons floating around. But part of our job is to figure out where that stuff is and who those people are and how you can deal with them. We need diplomatic posts.”

As for the Arab Spring in general, Mack said the initial euphoria should be tempered by patience and perspective. “It is natural that Americans want to see people succeed in freeing themselves from authoritarian rule,” he wrote in a Jan. 7 MEI analysis. “But demands for rapid change that start with sweeping idealism often end badly, as they did for early twentieth-century Russia. Or, as was true for late eighteenth-century France, a positive outcome may not emerge before decades of bloodshed and destruction.”

Democracy is hard and takes time, he argues, especially in countries like Libya that lack strong institutions to begin with. Moreover, “the United States has no magic answer for these problems,” he says, noting that the West was ready to declare victory in the Arab Spring before the battle had even begun. “Next time, hold the applause until the dust settles.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on February 1, 2015