Op-Ed: Playing the Trump card in Libya

By Richard Galustian

Will Trump the negotiator make a difference for Libya (Photo: Trump campaign)

Will Trump the negotiator make a difference for Libya?  (Photo: Trump campaign)

Malta, 19 November 2016:

President-elect Donald Trump, a man whose name is synonymous with deal-making, will soon be at the helm of the world’s foremost superpower. This may in fact play to Libya’s advantage. It is even plausible we may see stability in the region after five hard years of civil war, violence and chaos.

How? Because Trump is a businessman.

Policy-wise, his intentions are not immediately clear. But reasons for optimism regarding Libya and the Middle East generally are not rooted in guesswork over policy but rather in the style that he brings to the table; namely, his commercial acumen.

Had Hillary Clinton won, she would not have wanted anything to do with Libya. It would have been too toxic for her.  The Republicans in Congress would have gone for her every time Libya was mentioned.

It is often remarked that Trump is the first US president never to have served in politics or the military. The flip side of this being that he is one of few who knows how to cut deals.

His campaign cry, and now possibly his biggest challenge, is to break through the layers of advisors and bureaucrats that clog Washington.

Mahmud Jibril, former prime minister of the rebel administration that emerged in Libya’s Arab Spring to combat Qaddafi, has commented: “Mr. Trump as a decision-maker will be either contained by the Establishment or will somehow change the Establishment…there will be a tension between the new president and the system.”

Libya is a potent example of tried and failed bureaucracy. Here, a wholly different approach is needed to prevent a slow-burning civil war from erupting into a Syria-style conflagration.

Two sides, Libya Dawn and the elected-parliament in Tobruk, have been fighting off-and-on since 2014. The conflict is also sucking in outside powers – Turkey, Qatar, Britain and the Obama Administration are sympathetic to Libya Dawn, while Egypt, United Arab Emirates and France err on the side of Tobruk, with Russia minded to join them.

The new government, the Government of National Accord, chosen by the UN rather than the voters, is now in Tripoli and has been a dead loss.

So a negotiator is needed. Not a UN diplomat, but a Trump.

A peace deal is time-sensitive. Russia, already sparring with the West in Syria, is poised to jump in on the side of Tobruk.

“The longer this Libya conflict lasts, the more the likelihood that Russia will become an active player on Libyan soil, and this is not good for the United States,” says Jibril.

The Russian involvement looks more likely as a group of House of Representatives lawmakers will shortly visit Moscow to seek backing.

The obvious answer – to anyone old enough to remember the Cold War – is some Detente.

Neither Moscow nor Washington needs a new front between their respective allies in the Middle East. Neither even wants the existing sparring over Syria. Trump has already crafted good relations with Putin. “If Trump can reach some sort of rapprochement with Russia then there is a likelihood some sort of transaction over various MENA problems can be reached” says Jibril.

And Jibril should know.

In 2011, as interim Prime Minister he met then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and requested US humanitarian support. Jibril says the US then made a serious strategic error in believing they could contain extremist Islamic groups by aligning themselves with moderates. This failed and Obama himself admitted that the post-revolution action on Libya was his number one foreign policy mistake.

In the 2012 elections, Jibril’s National Forces Alliance party won the biggest vote share, but parliamentary factions meant he was unable to become prime minister.

Chaos followed. Libya’s factions fought, combined, divided and re-formed. This has left the capital, Tripoli, in turmoil. Citizens are facing shortages; food, medicines, cash, electricity and basic services. This is not to mention the migrant crisis that impacts so greatly on the EU.

Militia leaders, political leaders, social and tribal leaders even some former Qaddafi-ites should be around the table, says Jibril. “Because they all represent the balance of power in Libya.”

That approach means acknowledging that Libya’s chaos is in part because of the collapse of governing institutions, which must be rebuilt, along with agreeing that Field Marshall Hafter, detested by the Islamists but popular among their foes, is given a prominent role.

It is a style of political deal-making that Jibril knows well. And it is a style that will be boosted by a Trump presidency cutting its own hard-headed deal with Russia, so both powers speak with one voice to solve MENA’s many problems.

Richard Galustian is a security analyst

The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Libya Herald.

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