Last Thursday the Atlantic Council hosted an event “Prospects for Ending the Civil War in Libya,” moderated by Karim Mezran. The event featured Nebras Attia, human rights activist, Federica Saini Fasanotti, nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution, Azza Maghur, senior lawyer at Maghur & Partners, Jason Pack, executive director of the US-Libya Business Association, and Ambassador Jonathan Winer, former US Special Envoy for Libya.
Ambassador Winer said that of the three actors vying for control of the country, no party has legitimacy among the Libyan people. Elections to determine sovereignty. Both Fayez Sarraj (Government of National Accord or GNA) and Aguila Saleh Issa (House of Representatives or HOR) reached out to international powers for help in facilitating elections, while military strongman Haftar refused to negotiate. Winer believes that the joint Tunisian, Algerian and Egyptian efforts to facilitate a Libya-Libya solution have some potential to re-energize negotiations, but he is not overly optimistic about their potential for success. The most foreign governments can do to encourage a favorable solution is to consolidate support behind one body instead of the divided foreign support for different militias. Winer maintains that US involvement in Libya is aimed at inclusivity reflecting local interests, though efforts are often thwarted by lack of cooperation and willingness to take orders from foreigners. He sees little indication that the Trump administration will pursue a policy towards Libya different than his predecessor.
When asked why she was skeptical about the Libyan Political Agreement that aimed to establish the GNA, Maghur replied she was not only skeptical of it, but that she knows it is a failure. The agreement is not realistic because it lacks transparency, inclusivity, and a clear start date. The agreement only makes the international community happy, and if they want to make the Libyan people happy they need to include them in the process.
As a lawyer in Libya, Maghur sees the judicial system as a strong tool for reunifying the nation. It is a venerable institution that survived the dictatorship and will survive the civil war. The criminal courts are very effective, but improvements are needed in the civil courts.
Fasanotti said Libyans need to develop a sense of nationality and to accept the country’s diversity as a strength. Although nobody wants a divided Libya, the three regions have existed since Italian colonization and are a good place to start. She imagines a federal system that capitalizes on the strengths of each region and celebrates their differences. When asked her opinion on Italian policy towards Libya she stressed its consistency: Italian government support for the GNA is unwavering. Unlike Ambassador Winer, she does not believe that reopening the Italian embassy in Libya is a good idea for security reasons, and because it might be vulnerable to exploitation by military strongman Haftar.
Attia criticized the international community for viewing the Libyan crisis in its own terms. She said that outside actors do not see the real issues affecting Libyan communities. She encourages people in power to reach out to cities and communities to ask what they need help with, supporting a bottom up approach as the best course of action to support Libya. Internationals are not solving the real problems in Libya. Youth is the most vulnerable population sector, at risk of extremism unless someone steps in and engages them with alternatives.
Pack described the proxy war in Libya as a situation where everyone wants to get control of the ‘Libya file,’ either to amp up their international status or to influence developments in a future, more stable, Libya. The Russians seek to limit American influence in the conflict, gain a warm water port, and potentially “trade” Libya for leverage in Syria or Crimea. Pack believes that a viable future for Libya requires heavy handed American intervention, both to consolidate foreign influence behind one actor and to support legitimacy on the ground with capacity building in every sector. He sees the private sector as a potential tool for the Trump administration to incentivize development that creates jobs and infrastructure while increasing bilateral ties between the US and Libya.
Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.
Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.
At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.
I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.
Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:
…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.
This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.
In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.
But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.
Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.
The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.
- Northern Ireland’s Lesson for Israeli-Palestinian Peace | Monday, March 13 | 1:00- 5:00pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | When Northern Ireland’s combatants finally made peace in the 1990s, they did so on a broad foundation of grassroots reconciliation and economic development work, built over more than a decade by the International Fund for Ireland. On March 13, the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Embassy of Ireland will gather former government officials, peacebuilding practitioners and scholars to examine what worked in advancing peace in Northern Ireland—and what lessons might be applied to the difficult process of peacemaking and peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. Former Senator George Mitchell, who served as an envoy in both peace processes, will be the keynote speaker. The first panel on the International Fund for Ireland, will include Carol Cunningham of Unheard Voices, Melanie Greenberg of Alliance for Peacebuilding, Professor Brandon Hamber of Ulster University, and Adrian Johnston of the International Fund for Ireland. The second panel, on implications for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding, will include Joel Braunold of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen of the United Institute of Peace, Father Josh Thomas of Kids4Peace, and Sarah Yerkes of Brookings.
- Regional Perspectives on US Policy in the Middle East | Monday, March 13 | 3:00- 4:30pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As the dust begins to settle after the transition of power in Washington, the spotlight is slowly moving to the administration’s policies toward the Middle East and North Africa. With the region already troubled by one of President Trump’s early executive orders and several phone calls and meetings with regional leaders, many unanswered questions remain about the direction of the relationship with the Middle East. Our distinguished panel will discuss how the region is watching, anticipating, and reacting to shifts in policy, including Kristin Diwan on the Gulf, Haykel Ben Mahfoudh and Karim Mezran on North Africa, A. Hellyer on Egypt, and Nicola Pedde on Iran. Will the Trump administration fulfill its campaign promise to re-assert its role in the Middle East? How will the president and Congress react to ongoing challenges and opportunities in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt? Will the president’s style have a significant impact on the relationship with hardline leaders in Syria, Iran, and others across the region? Please join us for a discussion of these and other issues of concern to the United States in the Middle East.
- Report Launch: “The Other Side of the World” | Tuesday, March 14 | 2:00- 4:00pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | China’s growing interests in the Middle East, and the United States’ enduring interests in the Middle East, create challenges for two of the world’s most powerful nations. Should they seek more active collaboration? Are their goals for the future of the Middle East compatible? To discuss the implications of increasingly robust China-Middle East ties for U.S. interests, CSIS invites you to the launch of its new Brzezinski Institute Report: “The Other Side of the World: China, the United States, and the Struggle for Middle East Security.” The discussion will feature Carol Giacomo of The New York Times as well as CSIS experts Jon B. Alterman, Michael J. Green, Christopher K. Johnson, and Matthew P. Goodman.
- Why Tunisia Should Matter to the New U.S. Administration | Tuesday, March 14 | 3:00- 4:00pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Tunisia’s peaceful, though difficult, transition since the Arab Spring and its centrality in U.S.-supported efforts to stem terrorism punctuate its role as a major non-NATO ally of the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump “praised Tunisia’s stability and security,” in a Feb. 17 phone call with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, according to a White House statement. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui will discuss the U.S. partnership and Tunisia’s own development and influence in the region, in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, March 14.
- America’s Role in the World: Congress and US Foreign Policy | Thursday, March 16 | 9:00-10:30am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As the Trump administration continues to form its foreign policy and national security strategy, Congress has a distinct role of its own to play in shaping how the United States addresses emerging global threats and approaches its leadership role on the international stage. At this early stage, little is defined within the administration’s approach. Congress has an opportunity to help characterize what America’s role in world should be and how it aims to deal with issues in the Middle East, especially ISIS and Iran, China, and Russia. To help think through these issues, two Representatives with military backgrounds, Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), will offer their perspectives on the United States leadership role and national security strategy in an environment of increasing global risks.
- Congressman Adam Kinzinger on America’s Role in the Middle East and the World | Friday, March 17 | 8:30am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The United States faces a number of security challenges across the globe as well as increasing questions about what role the Trump Administration believes the United States should play on the international stage. Please join the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a conversation with Congressman Adam Kinzinger on America’s role in the world and in the Middle East in particular, and what we can expect from a Trump presidency in terms of foreign policy and national security. This event is part of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force initiative, co-chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former US National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley. In November 2016, the co-chairs published their Task Force Report that proposes a pragmatic and actionable Middle East roadmap that emphasizes the efforts of the people of the Middle East themselves supported by the long-term engagement of the international community, with an eye toward harnessing the region’s enormous human potential. The Task Force brought together a broad array of regional stakeholders and international experts to collaborate in identifying ways in which people in the Middle East can build and support governing institutions that offer legitimacy, opportunity, and an alternative to violence.
Building the Programs That Can Better Build Peace | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 9:30-11:00 | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here |
On March 7, members of the consortium at USIP will describe their findings, including new tools that can assess and improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding programs. The work of accountability is vital to prove the case for peacebuilding as a strategy—and to sustain support from donors and taxpayers. Several non-government organizations—including Alliance for Peacebuilding, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Mercy Corps and Search for Common Ground—have formed a Peacebuilding Evaluation Consortium. This group is developing better tools for the design, monitoring and evaluation of programs abroad.
What Both Parties Like: Two-State Solution and Beyond | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 12-1:30 | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here |
President Trump expressed an early interest in making “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians, but it remains unclear how the administration plans to engage on this conflict. Polls of Israelis and Palestinians consistently suggest that while support is shrinking for the two-state solution, it remains the preferred outcome. So what are the alternatives, and how politically and logistically feasible are they? The conversation will include Dahlia Scheindlin, who recently proposed a confederal approach as a “Third Way for Israel-Palestine.” She will be joined by Khaled Elgindy, a former advisor on permanent status negotiations to the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership, and by USIP’s Mike Yaffe, formerly the senior advisor to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the Department of State.
Will Washington and Moscow Work Together in the Middle East? | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 12:00-1:30 | Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register Here|
Join AGSIW for a discussion of how the U.S. and Russian Middle East agendas converge and diverge, and how the prospect of a new level of coordination between them is viewed both in Europe and the Gulf.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump advocates greater cooperation with Russia, including in the Middle East. But how compatible are Russian and U.S. regional strategic goals, especially over the long run? Can the new administration simultaneously pursue cooperation with Moscow and confrontation with Tehran, given the close partnership between Russia and Iran? Will Washington identify and exploit differences between Russian and Iranian priorities, particularly in Syria? How can Gulf Arab countries adapt to this complex evolving environment and protect their own interests?
Chasing War: The struggle for journalism in ISIS’ Middle East | Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 | 3:00-4:30 | Elliott School |Register Here|
Shaheen Pasha is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She previously worked as the Middle East Regional Editor for The Brief, a legal magazine published by Thomson Reuters. Prior to launching the magazine, Pasha was the Islamic finance correspondent at Thomson Reuters, based in Dubai. She has been an assistant professor of journalism at The American University in Cairo, teaching print and online journalism for undergraduate and graduate students, and has worked at CNNMoney.com as a banking and legal reporter, covering the Supreme Court and the Enron trial. Pasha was also a reporter at Dow Jones Newswires, where she had a daily column in the Wall Street Journal and appeared as a regular correspondent on CNBC Asia, covering the ADR market. Pasha will join us at the Elliott School on March 7 to discuss the challenges for those in the journalism and media industries in covering the war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq. She will give some background on the conflict, bringing in a discussion of the difficulties journalists are facing on the ground, and ISIS’ own media efforts in the form of their magazine, Dabiq. This event aims specifically to engage journalists and other media specialists, but is open to all.
Prospects for Ending the Civil War in Libya | Thursday, March 9th, 2017 | 10:00-11:30 | Atlantic Council | Register Here |
The situation in Libya today, as a result of increasing fragmentation and polarization among actors, is on the verge of a breaking point. So far, the competing authorities in the country – namely the Presidential Council and Government of National Accord established by a United Nations-backed process, and the eastern-based House of Representatives and head of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar – have failed to come to an agreement to end the conflict. In this environment, it is more important than ever to offer perspectives on ways in which the new US administration can help Libya move toward stability. The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a panel of experts to discuss the current situation in Libya and explore ways forward out of the current conflict.
The View From Israel: A Conversation with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Israel | Thursday, March 9th, 2017 | 12-1 | Wilson Center | Register Here |
Israel sits in the middle of a volatile Middle East and at a nexus of issues critical to regional stability, security and American national interests. Join the Wilson Center as a veteran Israeli diplomat, Reuven Azar, offers observations on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Iran nuclear deal, the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, Russia’s role in the region and Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors.
The Syrian Crisis: American Interests and Moral Considerations | Friday, March 10th, 2017 | 11:45-1:30 | Hudson Institute | Register Here |
After nearly six years, Syria remains locked in a bloody civil war while Iran and Russia continue to be President Bashar al-Assad’s primary enablers. Assad’s Syria offers Iran an important supply line to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. The war has taken the lives of more than 400,000 Syrians and has displaced more than 9 million, creating a refugee crisis that has been felt around the world.
U.S. response to the Syrian civil war has been inconsistent. President Obama lacked a coherent strategy for dealing with Syria and infamously chose inaction after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. President Trump has made it clear that he intends to refocus U.S. efforts abroad and pursue a foreign policy focused primarily on American interests. He has, along with his Secretaries of State and Defense, signaled a willingness to take a very different approach to Syria.
What are the most pressing U.S. interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war? What moral obligation, if any, does the U.S. have to help the region regain stability and to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people? What options are before the Trump administration, and do those options take into consideration both U.S. security and humanitarian concerns? To address these questions and more, Hudson Institute and Providence Magazine will host a March 10 panel discussion with Marc LiVecche, managing editor of Providence Magazine, and Hudson fellows Michael Doran, Nina Shea, and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.
Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.
The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.
Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.
Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:
- directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
- impose new sanctions,
- alter the nuclear deal,
- or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.
How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.
A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.
At the Tuesday, February 21 event at the Center for American Progress, the assembled panelists discussed the opportunities for re-setting US-Egypt relations under the Trump administration. Discussing the recently released report with findings on how Egyptians feel about the future of their country, Nancy A. Youssef, Senior National Security Correspondent at Buzzfeed, moderated the conversation between Daniel Benaim, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Mokhtar Awad, Research Fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, and Eric Trager, Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Benaim discussed the main takeaways from the report, which engaged a variety of Egyptians in discussing the new moment for US-Egypt relations with Trump and Sisi at their respective helms. Sisi remains preoccupied with security threats and desires a strategic relationship with the United States to better address these issues. Because of his overwhelming concern to maintain stability after 2013, Egypt lacks a long-term plan or sense of direction. Although it will by and large escape the fate of its Arab neighbors and is tired of unrest, Egypt has become brittle from repression and faces major gaps in governance.
Benaim fears that a closer relationship between Trump and Sisi could enable Sisi’s repressive instincts rather than direct attention towards Egypt’s political and economic shortcomings. Trager likewise found contemporary Egyptian politics bleak as Egyptians see no alternative to the Sisi government, which has decreased in popularity due to economic decline and the sense of drift pervasive throughout the country.
However, closer ties between the two countries also present a chance to benefit citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. Benaim said that with deeper cooperation Trump has the opportunity to address human rights and governance inside Egypt and increase transparency within the military and Sisi’s government. Trager was also interested in seeing how Sisi will manage domestic problems in 2017 in preparation for the 2018 elections.
Awad shifted focus to the security landscape within Egypt and the policy implications of the existing threats. Although not as dire as in other Middle East countries, terrorist attacks have been escalating gradually over the last three years. The major threat theaters are the northeastern Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the Western Desert. In Sinai, the Egyptian military has become more successful at prosecuting insurgents, but still lacks a centralized agency that focuses on counterinsurgency strategy, making it difficult to address the consistent attacks in the area. Unrest in Libya impacts the Western Desert demanding increased border security and changes in Egypt’s policy towards its neighbors. In the Nile valley area, violence has escalated and become increasingly sophisticated since 2013, largely stemming from radicalization within prisons and radicalized groups aligned to factions within the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Sisi is good at keeping the Brotherhood is check, it is unclear whether there is a plan to leverage the government’s control over the organization to reach a final settlement with reconcilables within the Brotherhood to abandon violence and repent. Trager added to this discussion by cautioning against navigating the Brotherhood as a singular organization but rather a global movement, some of whose affiliates practice or endorse terrorism.
While the US-Egypt relationship under Trump could position Sisi as an effective counterterrorism partner, both panelists advocated discretion in applying a terrorist designation to the Brotherhood. They focused instead on identifying radical elements of the organization to better combat violence, rather than condemning the Brotherhood overall, which could lead to greater alienation and the inability to reach a final settlement.