April 19, 2018 - 9:30am
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, held a hearing on “Libya Fractured: The Struggle for Unity.” Her opening statement is below.
Nearly seven years after Gadaffi’s removal, Libya remains mired in civil conflict, political division, lawlessness, and economic crisis, with few signs of abating any time soon.
ISIS and al-Qaeda, though seriously degraded, are regrouping and as we’ve seen in a series of car bombings this year, they are still very much capable of violence. Despite backing by the United Nations and its partners, the western-based Government of National Accord, or GNA, has not been able to provide security or consolidate power throughout Libya’s vast territory. And it continues to clash with the eastern-based House of Representatives, backed by General Hiftar and his Libyan National Army, or LNA. Armed militias, some with ties to the LNA and GNA, profit off the lack of security and the rule of law, smuggling drugs, smuggling weapons, and people. And migrants, using Libya as a waypoint to Europe, suffer horrific treatment at the hands of smugglers, including torture, sexual abuse, and enslavement.
Adding to the chaos, a host of external actors continue to back different Libyan factions, with the U.S. and the U.N. supporting the GNA; Egypt, the UAE, and Russia supporting Hiftar; and Qatar and Turkey supporting the country’s Islamist groups. And as we saw when three French soldiers were killed fighting ISIS alongside Hiftar forces in 2016, even France has played both sides, sometimes assisting the U.S. and the GNA while at other times supporting Hiftar and his factions. All of this has made political reconciliation more remote, as both sides have dug in their heels and negotiations have stalled. The prospect of U.N-backed elections this year, which were probably too soon anyway, also seems to have fallen by the wayside.
There are some encouraging signs, however, including better governance at the local and municipal levels, and growth in the oil sector which, for now, has saved Libya’s economy from collapse. And it remains to be seen how Hiftar’s now confirmed hospitalization in Paris will impact Libya’s fractured state. If he is indeed incapacitated, will this be the opening that Libya needs for reconciliation, or will there be more chaos as his coalition breaks apart and his backers look for a successor?
With the challenges I’ve laid out, as well as the competing foreign policy priorities elsewhere, it is perhaps understandable that this administration would be wary of spending political capital in Libya. The administration does so at its peril, however, as this is a problem that is not going away, and is only going to get worse for the region, for Europe, for U.S. interests if it is not addressed.
Just last month, our U.S. commander in Africa stated that “the instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent.” Our partners in Tunisia and Egypt are already feeling the impact; Mali, Chad, and Sudan have been impacted; and we’ve seen how ISIS networks in Libya can reach into Europe with the Manchester and Berlin terror attacks in the last two years alone.
Libya’s instability is a major problem for U.S. interests and we need a concerted effort from this administration to make it a priority. It’s past time to appoint a new U.S. ambassador to Libya, and as soon as it’s viable from a security standpoint, we need to consider reopening our embassy in Tripoli to increase engagement on the ground. The administration should also fill the empty special envoy slot as soon as possible so that the U.S. has another dedicated diplomat who can work with our partners and coordinate our Libya policy, whatever that may be. More than anything – more than military aid, more than financial aid – Libya needs U.S. leadership; leadership that can corral the various countries interfering in Libya, leverage our connections, and help push the political reconciliation process forward.
I urge this administration to give Libya the attention that it deserves.
First elected to Congress in a special election n 1989, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is the first woman to ever chair the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is the current dean of the Florida delegation. She announced last year that she will retire from Congress and not seek another term this year.