The top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, told the U.S. Senate last week that Russia was trying to exert influence in Libya to strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power.
So it’s “influence” again. Perhaps we should consider replacing the Cold War lexicon. Once we thumb the dictionary and find “influence”, we stop thinking. We have to go beyond the word to define what we are afraid of.
Russia is no longer an ideological adversary, exporting revolution. It exports a kind of subversion-via-corruption of the weak emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. But the practices that we define as corruption are business-as-usual in Russia. In a country such as Libya, where there is no law, and everything is for sale already, there is nothing of purity to corrupt. Russia has a regional export, but not a global one.
The above is worth the words. It might be handy if we really want to understand why we oppose Russia helping Khalifa Haftar, who segued from a prior career as Muammar Qaddafi’s top military commander to U.S. citizen, who lived in the U.S. for 19 years.
Let’s compose a “meme list”, without trying to make them gel.
- Russia is our adversary, for various reasons that have entirely to do with aggression and subversion in Europe.
- Because Russia is our adversary, we are apprehensive of Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar.
- As a consequence of the U.S. historical tradition of religious tolerance and democracy, U.S. foreign policy in previous administrations has attempted to embrace Islamism without prejudice or distinction. The U.S. backed Islamists who feigned the pretense of democracy, such as Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, and Syrian rebels.
- The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, section 508, forbids foreign aid to individuals such as Haftar, if the “…duly elected” leader “is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.”
- In contrast to the U.S. embrace-without-prejudice of Islamism, the Russians fear it. This is the driver of Russia is Libya. It has no analog in the genuine geopolitical rivalry of Europe. It explains the Russians willingness to bear high costs of backing autocratic secularists in Syria, and now, Libya.
- Khalifa Haftar is a secularist. His long residence in the U.S. suggests he actually liked it here. U.S. foreign policy gives little or no consideration as to whether the client likes us on a cultural level.
The list is a mix of consistency and contradiction, influencing a U.S. foreign policy that ricochets like a billiard ball off these bumpers:
- The desire to identify, in every revolutionary situation, a group to back with aspirations to democracy. The lure is so strong, it activates the imagination.
- A tendency to view Russian activities everywhere with the same lens we apply to Europe, where there really is a cold war, driven not by ideology, but ethics.
- Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
- Inability to consider the intangible qualities of Libya’s Islamists, of Khalifa Haftar, or to make comparisons of such qualities.
The purpose of the above is to define the terms. It advocates nothing. It does offer a radical course for U.S. policy: to make Haftar an offer he can’t refuse.
Perhaps, under Russian aegis, Haftar will follow the murderous path of Syria’s Assad. Or perhaps the Islamists will. But unlike Eastern Europe, we cannot base our concern on subversion of Libya. There are no institutions to destroy. Perhaps, down the line, the Russians could sell Haftar some weapons. But there are plenty of markets.
A Russia-Haftar lockup could be driven by Haftar’s need for recognition, for legitimacy. He will need it, and the Russians are selling.