Exclusive: Hillary Clinton’s Libyan “regime change” project remains in chaos with one U.S. official likening rival factions to rogue water “droplets” resisting a U.S.-carved rewards-and-punishment “channel” to reconciliation, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The Obama administration is hoping that it can yet salvage Hillary Clinton’s signature project as Secretary of State, the “regime change” in Libya, via a strategy of funneling Libya’s fractious politicians and militias – referred to by one U.S. official as chaotic water “droplets” – into a U.S.-constructed “channel” built out of rewards and punishments.
However, so far, the “unity government” – brokered by U.S. and United Nations officials – has floundered as the leaders of two rival governments bristle at demands for their compliance and show little interest in being good little water “droplets” flowing through the Obama administration’s “channel.”
In recent days, competing militias, supporting elements of the three governments, have converged on Sirte, where the Islamic State jihadists have established a foothold, but the schisms among the various Libyan factions have prevented anything approaching a coordinated attack. Indeed, resistance to the U.S.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) appears to be growing amid doubts about the political competence of the hand-picked prime minister, Fayez Sirraj.
Jonathan Winer, the State Department’s special envoy on Libya, voiced some of the U.S. government’s frustrations during a May 20 panel discussion at the Middle East Institute in Washington as he explained the U.S. strategy for reunifying Libya under the GNA.
“It’s a bit like water hydraulics,” Winer said. “You can’t predict where an individual particle is going to go when water is flowing through something turbulent, that’s the core of chaos theory, right? But if you dig a trench, you know most of the water’s going to go down that trench, and if you turn it into a channel, more of the water’s going in. And then after you dig the channel, you then coat the channel and put in filters and a variety of things to then get that water looking good and useful for more purposes.
“So what we’re doing with the Government of National Accord is we’re trying to create a channel, for national unity and reconciliation, and for building the institutions Libya needs, for building enough stability so the economy can come back, so they can pump oil, which Libya needs for Libyans, distribute the wealth fairly, equitably, in a way that brings people in, and take advantage of Libya’s natural resources to rebuild the country. …
“Libyans overall can be quite fractious, so carving that channel in a way that’s good, that they’re going to say is good, is what we’re trying to do, even if we can’t predict where individual droplets are going to go, even if it’s going to take time, which it is and it will.”
Thus far, however, many Libyan political figures have been unwilling to jump into the “channel,” which has led the Obama administration to both impose and threaten punishments against these rogue water “droplets,” such as financial sanctions and even criminal charges.
“We’ve sanctioned [Aguila Saleh] the speaker of the parliament of the government in Libya we had recognized prior to the GNA after he undertook a series of activities to prevent people [in the parliament] from voting, which included substantial threats of violence and intimidation when a majority was ready to support the Government of National Accord,” Winer said. “We sanctioned him.”
The European Union also imposed sanctions on Saleh, whose government is known as the House of Representatives (HOR), based in Tobruk, as well as on Nouri Abusahmain and Khalifa al-Ghwell, the president and prime minister, respectively, of another rival government in Tripoli.
That government denied Sirraj and other GNA officials the right to land at the Tripoli airport in March, forcing the U.S./U.N.-backed “unity government” to arrive by sea and set up shop at a heavily defended naval base. The GNA threatened to deliver its rivals’ names to Interpol and to the U.N. for “supporting terrorism.”
Support from a Jihadist
Ironically, even as U.S. officials confront defiance from the rival Libyan leaders in Tripoli and Tobruk, they have won cooperation from Abdelhakim Belhadj, who was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist militia whose members were once driven out of Libya by Col Muammar Gaddafi and developed close ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Belhadj was tracked by the CIA and captured in Malaysia in 2004 before being renditioned back to Libya, where he was imprisoned until 2010. In 2011, after Secretary of State Clinton convinced President Obama to join an air war against the Gaddafi regime on “humanitarian” grounds, Belhadj pulled together a jihadist force that helped spearhead the decisive attack on Tripoli.
After Gaddafi fled Tripoli and was captured in his home town of Sirte, U.S.-backed rebels sodomized him with a knife and murdered him. Upon hearing of Gaddafi’s demise, Secretary of State Clinton clapped her hands in obvious glee and declared, “we came, we saw, he died.”
Now, Belhadj, who has since branched off into various business ventures including an airline, is viewed as a key American ally with his militia helping to protect Sirraj and other GNA officials operating from the Tripoli naval base. (Gee, how could an Al Qaeda-connected jihadist with an airline present a problem?)
But U.S. officials have been unwilling to negotiate with some other Libyan figures, such as General Khalifa Haftar, who is commander of the Libyan forces supporting the HOR government in the east. Haftar, who has vowed to crush the Islamic State but also wants broad powers as the country’s military chieftain, is viewed as a potential strongman in the mold of Gaddafi.
Sirraj, after being picked to lead the U.N.-U.S.-brokered “unity government” in January, reached out to Haftar in a face-to-face meeting that infuriated U.S. officials who preferred isolating Haftar and felt that the get-together with Sirraj would create confusion among anti-Haftar forces in Libya’s west.
Rather than pursue such negotiations, the Obama administration’s strategy has focused on using coercion, such as financial sanctions and threats of arrest, to force the chaotic Libyan water “droplets” into the U.S.-dug “channel.”
Although the purported reason for the “channel” in this case is to promote positive goals such as political reconciliation and economic development for all Libyans, a troublesome question about the tactic is where – in reality – does the “channel” go. Some Libyans suspect that the “channel” may lead to a neoliberal end that would privatize the nation’s oil wealth, rather than sharing it with the people in an equitable way.
There’s also the issue of how such a strategy of financial and legal inducements can be used in other undemocratic or even imperialistic ways, benefiting outside powers or coercing the people of a country into policies that they otherwise would reject. Like any weapon, the sophisticated application of sanctions and other pressures can inflict harm in the wrong hands.
‘Work in Progress’
In the case of Libya, the wielding of such “smart power” risks further deepening the country’s bitter divisions and making the building of bridges between the various factions even harder. That, in turn, could leave the Libyan crisis as a sore point for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in which she has tried to put the best face on the bloody mess, presenting Libya as a “work in progress.”But “progress” has been slow when detectable at all. Sirraj and the GNA have struggled to assert their authority in the west, while the HOR government in the east continues to insist on its legitimacy.
This past week, central bank officials in the east announced that they had printed 4 billion Libyan dinars through a Russian company while bank officials in the west said they had a British company print dinars for them. The U.S.-backed GNA denounced the eastern dinars as counterfeit, but last year, the U.S.-based International Monetary Fund recognized the central bank governor in the east, Ali Salim al-Hibri, as its sole contact and ended ties to a rival bank operation in the west.
Summing up the confusing situation, The New York Times reported on June 2, “One Western official who recently visited the country said the political mood in Libya had become increasingly confrontational during recent months as the United Nations, acting under pressure from the United States and its allies, has struggled to win acceptance for the unity government.”
The ongoing violence and chaos in Libya is a far cry from what Hillary Clinton’s State Department team envisioned when the “regime change” was being accomplished in 2011 and the expectation was to announce a “Clinton Doctrine” based on the use of “smart power,” according to State Department email exchanges.
Clinton and other “liberal interventionists” around Obama had pressured the President to intervene in Libya supposedly to protect Libyans from a possible slaughter at the hands of Gaddafi, who was mounting an offensive against what he described as Islamic terror groups around Benghazi. The Western bombing campaign decimated the Libyan army and cleared the way for the rebels to seize Tripoli and murder Gaddafi.
However, with Gaddafi and his largely secular regime out of the way, Islamic militants expanded their power across the country, with some proving that they indeed were terrorists, just as Gaddafi had warned. One Islamic terror group attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American personnel, an incident that Clinton called the worst moment of her four-year tenure as Secretary of State.
As the violence spread, the United States and other Western countries abandoned their embassies in Tripoli. Once prosperous with many social services, Libya descended into the category of failed state with the Islamic State taking advantage of the power vacuum to seize control of Sirte and other territory. In one grisly incident, Islamic State militants marched Coptic Christians onto a beach and beheaded them.
Now, the Obama administration is trying to re-impose order in the country via a hand-picked group of new Libyan officials and by building a “channel” to direct the flow of the nation’s politics in the direction favored by Washington. But many Libyan water “droplets” are refusing to climb in.
(Research by Assistant Editor Chelsea Gilmour.)
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Cleaning Up Hillary’s Libya Mess.”]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).