From R2P to Reticence: U.S. Policy and the Libyan Conflict

Mieczysław P. Boduszyński, Pomona College

U.S. policy toward Libya since the R2P-based 2011 NATO intervention—which helped precipitate the fall of former dictator Muammar al-Qadhafi—has been characterized by a general reticence to get deeply involved. This disengaged approach has prevented the United States from bringing its considerable leverage to bear in pushing the warring sides and their external supporters to end the ongoing conflict. In this paper, I argue that a pattern of U.S. reticence with only episodic attention to issues such as counterterrorism and Russia’s involvement has helped facilitate the internal and external forces that help keep Libya in perpetual conflict.

In describing and explaining the arc of U.S. policy over the past decade, I begin by considering the Obama administration’s generally restrained approach to Libya, which was primarily focused on counterterrorism at the expense of addressing broader drivers of the conflict. I then analyze how an ambiguous Trump administration policy prevented the U.S. from playing a constructive role in helping to forestall General Khalifa Haftar’s 2019-2020 campaign against Tripoli. Finally, I discuss the Trump administration’s growing preoccupation with the Russian role in Libya, which, coupled with an unwillingness to push back against autocratic allies such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has further constrained Washington’s ability to use its potential leverage to prevent a frozen conflict from emerging in Libya.

The premise of this paper—that outside actors, even ostensibly “liberal” ones like the U.S.—should get involved in conflicts such as that in Libya and if they do, are capable of influencing the outcome—is the subject of intense debate among both scholars and policymakers. Capasso questions whether Western actors such as Europe and the United States can act beyond the capitalist motives that structure power and resources in the world order. According to Capasso, this very structure—filtered through a military-industrial complex—actually helps to sustain violence and war in Libya. Abboud, by contrast, by detailing the effects of the non-liberal Astana framework in Syria, by implication allows for the potentially positive role of liberal countervailing powers like the United States and Europe in helping to push for a politics of inclusion. My argument, however, is closest to that of Stark, who maintains that the ‘United States has substantial leverage, both via direct participation and by providing support to security partners who are also interveners’. Like Stark, I maintain that Washington had the leverage and tools—and perhaps uniquely for the Libyan case—credibility and neutrality—to help push the conflict from the level of low-intensity war and de facto partition toward a permanent settlement.

R2P and the Improbable Intervention

In an unprecedented show of international unity, the world came together in February 2011 around the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in an attempt to stop former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi as he threatened to massacre his own people. That month, the UN Security Council sanctioned Libya and referred the violence to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Within weeks, the Security Council, with the blessing of the Arab League, authorized “any means necessary” to protect Libyan civilians, and NATO and its Arab allies began an air war to stop Qadhafi’s advance on the city of Benghazi.

In March 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama decided to participate in the military intervention. The fact that the U.S. decided to join was a surprise. Obama had been elected in 2008 partly based on his opposition to the war in Iraq, which the U.S. public had largely turned against. Obama made clear that he was determined to wean the U.S. of its Middle East entanglements and instead focus his administration’s attention on the Asia-Pacific. Obama, furthermore, was skeptical about the limits of U.S. power, especially when it came to the Middle East, where he saw intractable, historically-driven conflicts.[1] Several of his top advisors cautioned against the intervention.[2] Unlike the Europeans, who bought most of Libya’s oil and who dealt with migration from its shores, the U.S. had fewer direct interests in Libya.  The U.S. had followed for the preceding decade a rather hard-nosed, realist policy toward Libya, one which underpinned Washington’s rapprochement with the Qadhafi regime in the early 2000s, exchanging diplomatic recognition for nonproliferation and cooperation in the war on terror.[3] In sum, an array of factors suggested that Obama might not intervene: and if we believe the memoirs covering the period, his final call to do so was a “51-49” decision driven at least in part by pressure from Britain, France, and his “liberal interventionist” advisors.[4] But even in deciding to intervene, Obama drew clear red lines: there would be no “boots on the ground,” and the intervention had to be a joint effort. While the U.S. would provide unique assets, other countries—including Arab ones—would be part of the aerial campaign.

After the intervention, which resulted in Qadhafi’s toppling, the Obama administration took a self-consciously reticent approach, applying only the smallest “footprint” to its presence in Libya while mostly yielding supervision over the transition and reconstruction to a small United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the European Union (EU). But neither of these actors wanted to play a robust role in Libya, either. The reasons for Washington’s highly restrained approach were multifold: Obama’s aforementioned beliefs about the limits of U.S. power; fatigue with failed nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan; the global economic recession; and a belief (especially in Congress) that Libya had the resources to conduct its own state- and democracy-building projects. Accordingly, the U.S. effort to support Libya’s post-Qadhafi transition was small in scale, scope, and resources compared, for instance, to similar efforts in Tunisia or Egypt, or in other regions such as the Balkans, Central Asia, or Caucasus in earlier decades. While Obama’s self-limiting approach was in part a response to the perception that Libyans opposed foreign involvement,[5] it was also a way for his administration to legitimize its lack of will to engage in any potentially messy commitments in the new Libya.

Obama’s reluctance to get involved in post-Qadhafi Libya was heightened by the September 2012 attacks on Washington’s diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other American officials. The political fallout in Washington made Libya “radioactive” in the White House, and only strengthened the administration’s reticence.[6] Interestingly, Obama later described the failure to plan for the aftermath of Qadhafi’s fall as one of his greatest foreign policy regrets, but never explained what he would have done differently.[7]

Limited U.S. and international support for elections, civil society groups and war veterans in the wake of Qadhafi’s demise was no match for the darker forces that were gathering strength: predatory militias, extremism, separatism, tribal conflicts, among other trends. These problems could have been mitigated had there been a stable security environment in which civil society, political parties, and a constitution-writing process could develop. The new Libya had neither security nor institutions. U.S. policy nonetheless focused on electoral processes rather than long-term institution building. The successful July 2012 election process, which was overseen and supported by UNSMIL, the United States, EU, and other outside actors, was hailed as a triumph. However, the euphoria surrounding the election seemed to ignore the fact that the newly elected General National Congress (GNC) and the government that emerged from it did not have the instruments of governance at their disposal, starting with a monopoly on the use of force. Indeed, an array of militias claiming “revolutionary legitimacy” soon filled the void. Rather than trying to help foster a ‘hybrid security’ order as described by Ahram, Washington and other Western powers mostly looked the other way as the power of the militias grew, while the Gulf states and Turkey actively backed their favorite militia proxies.

The power of these militias was demonstrated in the spring of 2013, when armed groups combined the soft power of their revolutionary narrative and the hard power of their guns to pressure the fledgling Libyan parliament into passing a sweeping and divisive law designed to exclude figures associated with the Qadhafi regime from public life.[8] Many experts and Libyans alike now see the passage of the law as the beginning of Libya’s unravelling.[9] U.S. officials I have spoken with claim that there was little that Washington could have done to prevent the passage of the law and the growing threat of the militias.[10] But the truth is that the Obama administration never meaningfully tried. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, “Drawing on nonmilitary tools, the government could have taken a number of useful steps, including sending a U.S. training mission to help restructure the Libyan army, increasing the advisory role of the UN Support Mission in Libya, helping design a better electoral system that would not have inflamed social and regional divisions, and restraining Egypt and the Gulf states from their meddling in the lead-up to and after the outbreak of the 2014 civil war.”[11] Rather, the Obama administration had become consumed with counterterrorism, especially bringing the perpetrators of the Benghazi attacks to justice. There was little attempt to engage the Libyan government on other issues, nor to work with European or Arab partners to bring about stability in Libya.[12] After 2014, when the U.S. embassy moved from Tripoli to Tunis as a civil war consumed Libya and the country split in two, U.S. engagement diminished even further.

The final years of the Obama administration were witness to many U.S. airstrikes targeting terrorists in Libya combined with moments of increased engagement, including some attempts at security sector reform and support for the 2015 UN-led peace process in Skhirat, Morocco, which led to the creation of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). But here, too, the U.S. focus was in large part on finding a stable and legitimate partner for counterterrorism cooperation, especially as an Islamic State (IS) franchise appeared in the central Libyan city of Sirte in 2015.[13] Notable bureaucratic divisions within the U.S. foreign policy apparatus on how much to deal with Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled “Libyan National Army”—which claimed to be fighting terrorism—contributed to a sometimes-ambivalent stance on where the U.S. stood vis-à-vis the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli.[14] The Obama administration, furthermore, was largely unwilling to stand up to growing interventions in Libya by the UAE in support of Haftar.[15]

Trump’s Libya Policy: From Reticence to Russia

Trump announced early on that he had no intention of ramping up U.S. engagement in Libya: “I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has, right now, enough roles,” he said in April 2018. However, his administration was more than willing to continue its predecessor’s focus on counterterrorism in Libya, stepping up airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) and other targets in Libya. Thus, to a large extent, Trump initially continued Obama’s policy of limited political engagement to ensure a threshold level of Libyan political support for U.S. counterterrorism operations.

Trump’s relative disinterest in Libya had the unintended consequence of leaving in place Obama policies that focused on a relatively balanced approach to dealing with the Libyan factions. Early in Trump’s administration, many expected the new president to throw his support behind Haftar, an anti-Islamist strongman allied with the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. But Trump’s lack of attention to Libya left U.S. policy in the hands of the State Department. This, in turn, led to policy inertia according to which Washington continued to support the Tripoli-based GNA. Consequently, it was Fayez al-Serraj, the prime minister of the internationally-recognized GNA, who met with Trump at the White House in December 2017.

Then, in a sudden shift, Trump, who was likely influenced by conversations with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi and UAE leader Mohamed bin Zayed, reportedly expressed support for Haftar and his campaign against Tripoli in an April 2019 call, thereby throwing the U.S. policy of backing the internationally-recognized government into disarray. Trump’s call followed on another one by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, who gave the green light to Haftar’s Tripoli campaign, advising him “to do it quickly.”[16] That same month, Washington, along with Russia, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Haftar was undoubtedly emboldened by these expressions of support from the White House. Yet, by the summer of 2019, in another about-face, the Trump administration had returned to the previous policy of supporting the GNA, but while maintaining its relatively low level of diplomatic engagement.[17]

However, by the second half of 2020, the administration had suddenly ramped up its engagement on Libya—to a degree. Indeed, Washington became involved in a flurry of diplomatic activity on the Libya file, from attempting to broker a deal to end the oil blockade by Haftar’s forces to pressuring the warring sides toward the ceasefire declared in August 2020. Early that month, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien issued a statement denouncing foreign meddling in Libya, saying that it “undermines the collective security interests of the US and its allies and partners in the Mediterranean region.”[18] Beyond such statements, however, media reports based on anonymous sources in the Trump administration depict a U.S. president still unwilling to become too deeply involved in Libya. One such source claimed that both Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan and Egyptian President Sisi regularly call Trump to promote their narratives and interests in Libya and solicit Washington’s support.[19] Trump has neither actively helped them, nor has he sought to talk any U.S. allies out of pursuing their narrow interests in Libya. Instead, he has reportedly told both Sisi and Erdoğan that he would rather avoid being involved in Libya ahead of the presidential election with so many other domestic issues weighing him down, and instead urged the two leaders to sort the issue out amongst themselves.[20]

Some  of the most consistently strong messaging from Washington on Libya in recent months has concerned Moscow’s role, which is commensurate with the increasing policy turn to matters of great power competition with both Russia and China.[21] Starting in May 2020, U.S. officials launched a sustained campaign of calling out Russia for its growing involvement in Libya.[22] Yet, this “naming and shaming” approach was not backed up with concrete actions to impose costs on Russian behavior. Part of the anti-Russia push lies in bureaucratic dynamics within the U.S. foreign policy-making apparatus. The Pentagon in particular sees Russian power projection as a major threat, and are thus alarmed at the prospect of a permanent Russian presence in Libya—and, by extension, in the southern Mediterranean. By contrast, the White House has been quite reticent to criticize Moscow or Putin since Trump took office.

Yet, even while adopting a policy of “active neutrality” toward the Libyan conflict and calling out Russia for its intervention, the United States did little to call out the UAE for its repeated violations of the 2011 international arms embargo on Libya in support of Haftar. Throughout Haftar’s brutal campaign against Tripoli, and even after pledging to abide by the embargo at the January 2020 Berlin peace conference, Abu Dhabi continued to deliver military hardware (and probably mercenaries) to Haftar.[23] Just as Pentagon officials showed satellite photos of Russian arms deliveries, so it could have “named and shamed” the Emiratis for their violations of the arms embargo. But other equities constrained Washington’s willingness to confront the Emiratis, whose role has helped fuel the conflict. As Patel notes, historically low oil prices are changing the internal calculus for the Emirati regime—and this may present the perfect opportunity for Washington to apply some real pressure on Abu Dhabi. However, from the perspective of Washington policy-makers, there is never a good moment to challenge Abu Dhabi given deep-rooted fears of lost access, cooperative and revenues from arms sales. Under the Trump administration, the penchant to avoid any confrontation with the Emiratis has only increased, owing in part to two U.S. objectives in which Abu Dhabi is perceived to play an indispensable role: 1) the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran; 2) the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace and the recent U.S.-brokered deals between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. Moreover, Trump and his son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, both enjoy close ties with MBZ. Trump’s close relationships with Turkish President Erdoğan and Egyptian President Sisi may also help explain why Washington has not vocally condemned Turkey and Egypt for their extensive violations of the arms embargo.


Washington’s post-2011 reticent approach to Libya represents a lost opportunity, because despite the ambiguity and shifts described above, the United States is still seen by many Libyans as a credible mediator. Compared to regional players such as the EU and Turkey, the U.S. had less of a stake in Libya, allowing it to be a more neutral actor. The U.S. could have drawn on this reservoir of credibility and deployed the multiple foreign policy tools at its disposal not only to push Libyan and external actors toward a political settlement, but also in areas highlighted by Yadav in the case of Yemen, such as the fair distribution of oil resources and support for locally-led transitional justice and peacebuilding.

However, the prevailing U.S. preoccupation with Russia’s role in Libya combined by an underlying lack of will to engage robustly carries the same risks as the previous focus on counterterrorism. Namely, it diminishes the opportunities for Washington to play a leading role in helping to bring about its end. Indeed, this has been the story of U.S. policy in Libya since 2011, as Fred Wehrey notes:

Indeed, in its reluctance to formulate a clear policy on Libya and its reticence to exert diplomatic leadership, the Trump administration has in many respects followed the Obama administration’s paradigm of “no ownership” . . .  part of this is structural and geo-strategic: Libya is just too peripheral for Washington to warrant significant commitment of U.S. resources or pushback against American allies who’ve long been intervening—especially when those allies’ help is deemed to be essential on other regional priorities. But under the Trump administration, authoritarian ideological preferences and a pronounced tilt toward the United Emirates and Turkey have factored in as well.[24]

A big, bold U.S. effort—such as that recently undertaken in Afghanistan—would require the kind of White House backing for which there exists little will. A Biden administration would also be unlikely to dramatically increase its engagement in Libya. Biden, after all, opposed the intervention from the outset. Washington’s unwillingness to exert strong leverage in Libya or to use its power and influence to maintain NATO or European unity on the Libya file means that it might also watch from the side-lines if a frozen conflict takes shape in Libya.


[1] Goldberg, Jeffrey. “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic, April 2016. Available at:

[2] For example, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned against it. See Gates, Robert Michael. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

[3] Burns, William. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, New York: Random House, 2019.

[4] Rhodes, Ben. The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. New York: Random House, 2018.

[5] In retrospect, the idea that Libyans did not want foreign help was likely overstated. Polls have shown that a majority of Libyans would have actually welcomed more outside assistance short of foreign troops. See Lindsey Benstead and Mieczysław P. Boduszyński, “Public Opinion and the Demise of U.S. Public Diplomacy in Libya.” USC Center for Public Diplomacy, 14 December 2017. Available at:

[6] Interview with former National Security Council official, February 2018.

[7] BBC, “President Obama: Libya aftermath ‘worst mistake’ of presidency.” 11 April 2016. Available at:

[8] Boduszyński, Mieczysław P. and Marieke Wierda. 2017. “Political Exclusion and Transitional Justice: A Case Study of Libya.” In Transitional Justice in the Middle East and North Africa, edited by Chandra Lekha Sriram. New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Conversation with Fred Wehrey, Claremont, CA.,October 2018.

[10] Author interviews with Obama administration officials, Washington, D.C., February 2018.

[11] Gates, Robert. “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy: The United States Must Recover the Full Range of Its Power.” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020. Available at:

[12] Interview with former Libyan official, November 2017.

[13] Boduszynski, Mieczysław P. US Democracy Promotion in the Arab World: Beyond Interests vs. Ideals. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[14] Author interviews with Obama administration officials, Washington, D.C., February 2018. The LNA was later renamed the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).

[15] Wehrey, Frederic. The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

[16] Kirkpatrick, David D. “The White House Blessed a War in Libya, but Russia Won It,” The New York Times, April 14, 2020. Available at:  Former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Libya Ghassan Salamé confirmed this in an October 2020 virtual presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available at:

[17] Chulov, Martin. “Trump officials snub strongman Khalifa Haftar as US shifts course on Libya.” The Guardian, 8 June 2019. Available at:

[18] White House, “Statement from National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien Regarding Libya.” 4 August 2020. Available at:

[19] Salama, Vivian. “Trump steps back from involving himself in Libya’s bloody civil war.” CNN, 8 August 2020. Available at:

[20] Ibid.

[21] White House, 2017 National Security Strategy. Available at:

[22] Detsch, Jack. “Pentagon Escalates Rhetoric in Libya as Russian Planes Arrive.” Foreign Policy, 26 May 2020. Available at:

[23] Associated Press, “Experts: Libya Rivals UAE, Russia, Turkey Violate UN Embargo.” 9 September 2020. Available at:

[24] Wehrey, Frederic. ““This‌ ‌War‌ ‌is‌ ‌Out‌ ‌of‌ ‌Our‌ ‌Hands’: The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts from Proxies to Boots on the Ground.” New America. September 14, 2020. Available at: