There was a time, not long ago, when a US president was criticised by his detractors in the United States for “leading from behind” when it came to US policy towards Libya.
That was in 2011 when then President Barack Obama was content on having US allies in NATO, including France, take the lead in confronting the Qaddafi regime after Libya’s “Arab spring.” Because of Washington’s prominent role in NATO, the United States was not absent from the Europeans’ Libya policy; nevertheless, Obama was keen to show that the United States did not always have to be out in front when it came to the Middle East and that other countries should take up the burden.
For taking this back-seat approach, Obama was castigated by Republicans in Congress, as well as conservative media commentators for supposedly abandoning US leadership.
French President Emmanuel Macron has now taken the lead by hosting a conference of Libya’s major political leaders and factions, who agreed to have elections this year, though they failed to sign a document to that effect. The French have collaborated closely with UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, and are considered the key outside player trying to settle the Libyan imbroglio, even though France was not Libya’s past colonial power.
So where is Washington in this matter and why are so many Republican supporters of President Donald Trump silent on this assertive French leadership? After all, the Islamic State (ISIS) is still active in Libya and Trump vowed to eradicate this terrorist organisation so it would not pose a threat to the US homeland. Trump did host Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in the White House in 2017, so why is he seemingly content at passing the baton over Libya policy to others?
First, except for the Iran issue, Trump seems fatigued by the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stalled in large part because of his Jerusalem decision; there is confusion about what role the United States will play in Syria and Iraq; the Yemen war is a humanitarian disaster and the policy of hitching the US wagon to the Saudis has not resulted in any substantial territorial gains there or an end to the conflict; and Trump’s support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sharply criticised by major US newspapers, including the Washington Post, as well as major human rights groups.
Second, part of Trump’s foreign policy that he articulated during the presidential campaign was isolationist and part was demanding that other countries spend more and do more on common security threats. So, if the French president wants to take the lead on Libya, that is just fine with Trump.
Despite their stark differences over the Iran nuclear deal and Jerusalem, Macron shares at least some foreign policy concerns with Trump, as was evident during his recent visit to Washington. The warm reception given to Macron by the US Congress, including Republicans, who once, absurdly, changed the name of “French fries” to “Freedom fries” in a congressional cafeteria to reflect their anger at French policies, is indicative of a softening attitude from American politicians about others taking the lead on some Middle East matters.
However, it is also evident that Macron, despite his so-called bromance with Trump, believes he needs to step into the void created by erratic and misguided US leadership. Although France and Britain joined the United States in attacking Syrian chemical weapons sites in April, Macron apparently believes that Trump is destabilising the Middle East by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal without understanding the ramifications of this policy. The tariffs that Trump placed on some European goods have made the idea of France collaborating with Washington on foreign policy issues very problematic.
If Macron pulls off a Libya deal without significant input from the United States, he might feel more emboldened to take the lead on other issues affecting the Middle East. Of course, much depends on whether elections in Libya do indeed take place this year and if the Libyan strongman in the east, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar would accept an election result not in his favour.
However, if Libya does stabilise, that would be a major victory for Macron and an indication that a US role in Libya and perhaps elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East is not indispensable.
Whether he realises it or not, Trump has adopted Obama’s approach of “leading from behind.”
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.