Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump’s voluble Capitol Hill defender, is worried that the president’s chatter is undermining efforts to stop Libya from falling into an all-out civil war.
Trump recently held a call with Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar that blindsided U.S. diplomats and confused Arab and North African countries about where U.S. policy actually stands. A readout of the call appeared to endorse Haftar — whose militia is currently waging a bloody fight seemingly to oust the country’s internationally recognized government — only weeks after the State Department denounced the leader’s tactics.
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The call “has created a sense of imbalance” among parties in the Libyan conflict, Graham said in an interview Monday. “We need to reinforce the message that we’re not picking one group over the others and we reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya.”
Graham, who was in Tunisia when news broke of the call and witnessed the shock waves it created, also urged the Trump administration to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, saying it would give American diplomats more leverage in Libya.
Oil-rich Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 Arab spring movements, which ousted its longtime dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Militias, criminal gangs and Islamist groups operate with impunity in much of Libya, while regional powers strive for influence in what some call a proxy war. The U.S. has called for political negotiations to end the violence.
For more than two weeks, Haftar’s forces have been trying to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in an apparent bid to depose the Government of National Accord, the ruling body that has been recognized internationally, including by the United States. More than 200 people are reported to have been killed in the fighting.
In a statement released Friday, the White House revealed that Trump had spoken earlier in the week with Haftar. The militia leader is in his 70s, previously lived in the U.S. and is thought to have cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies.
In phrasing that sounded like an endorsement, the White House said Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
The announcement was particularly shocking given that, earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed Haftar’s military moves.
“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Pompeo said on April 7. “A political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability and prosperity for all Libyans.”
Multiple people familiar with the issue said the Trump call with Haftar surprised top officials at the State Department, including several who deal directly with Libya. It was not clear if Pompeo was given a heads up, or much of one. State Department officials also have received virtually no guidance on what, if anything, it means policy-wise.
“A call is not yet policy,” said a U.S. official overseas.
The developments are, however, fairly typical for the Trump administration, in which the White House is often out of sync with the agencies. U.S. diplomats frequently grumble that under national security adviser John Bolton, the traditional inter-agency decision-making process is not being followed, leaving people out of the loop.
In this case, “our people on the ground are dealing with the fallout,” a State Department official told POLITICO.
Adding to the confusion internationally were reports last week that the United States had declined to support a British-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya. Media reports said the draft measure blamed Haftar for the rise in violence. Although the U.S. didn’t give a reason for not backing the resolution, its decision has fueled speculation that Washington is siding with Haftar.
Asked for comment Monday, the State Department appeared to try to cover multiple bases. In a statement, it urged “all involved parties” to “return to the political process.” The department also praised Haftar while noting that U.S. officials have met with other Libyan leaders.
“We continue to believe that General Haftar can be an important part of a political solution. We recognize his significant role in fighting terrorism and securing oil resources,” the statement said. “State Department officials have had regular meetings with a broad range of Libyan leaders, including Prime Minister [Fayez] al-Sarraj and General Haftar, as we press for stabilization in Tripoli and advance U.S. interests in Libya.”
It was not clear who arranged the call, which took place April 15. However, the conversation came just days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Trump at the White House. Sisi is one of several authoritarian figures that Trump has praised, and Egypt has been increasingly supportive of Haftar.
White House officials did not immediately respond to questions about how the call was arranged or whether they were worried about leaving the impression of endorsing Haftar.
Graham said he did know how the call came about and that he had not yet spoken to the president about it, but that he will in the coming days.
The South Carolina senator stressed that Haftar did deserve some praise, especially for helping fight Islamist militants in Libya. But he urged the administration to make it abundantly clear that it still supports political negotiations among the various factions in the country.
“It is impossible, in my view for Haftar or anyone else to be a legitimate leader by military force,” Graham said. “It is impossible, in my view, for him to hold Tripoli and govern the country if he obtains Tripoli by force. There will be a flood of refugees if the war escalates, which will be a nightmare for Tunisia and the entire region.”
Graham, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also called on Trump to “let Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey know that the proxy war they’ve created in Libya is unacceptable.”
“If I were the president, I’d put a lot of pressure on these groups to knock it off,” he said, adding that a protracted war in Libya will “harden the different groups” and “radical Islam will be the biggest beneficiary.”
The senator also said that the U.S. should reopen its embassy in Libya instead of trying to monitor the country from Tunisia. U.S. Embassy operations in Libya were suspended in July 2014, because of ongoing violence among militias nearby, according to the State Department.
Asked whether he’s disappointed that Trump talked to Haftar, Graham said, “It’s not disappointment,” but he noted that because he was in the region he saw the uncertainty spawned by the news.
“It’s that I saw on the ground the effects,” he said.