For a Hint of Biden’s Foreign Policy Plans, Look to Libya

Ellen Laipson

AFP photo: Timothy A Clary

President-elect Joe Biden is no novice when it comes to the Middle East, or to foreign policy in general. He would probably relish the opportunity to reestablish friendly relations with world leaders, even those in Jerusalem and Riyadh who may believe they have the most to lose with Donald Trump’s defeat. But his advisors warn that he will spend 80 percent of his time on domestic issues. It should be no surprise: he faces the dauting challenges of Covid-19, the devastating economic fallout from the disease and deep social and political wounds from polarization and racial injustice. Restoring American credibility in the world was mentioned, but only briefly, in his gracious victory remarks on November 7.

Maybe the Middle East will leave him alone for a while, without presenting any acute crises that can quickly dominate a president’s daily schedule. It remains to be seen if Trump will try to advance any initiatives in the region during the transition period from now to January 20. He may hope to seal one more agreement for an Arab state to recognize Israel, for example. But if Trump remains focused on blaming others for his defeat, foreign policy won’t provide much solace, because it was not a major factor in determining how 150 million Americans voted.

In a normal, healthy transition, should an international crisis occur, the outgoing president would engage his successor, who would already have access to intelligence briefings. But that seems alien to Trump’s character and modus operandi. In the 2016-17 transition, the Obama team was eager to assist the new administration in learning about institutions and issues, but the Trump folks brushed off this well-established ritual in presidential transitions.

Biden was very disciplined and careful to avoid contact with foreign officials during the campaign; in transition, he can accept their congratulations but must work to avoid any appearance of undermining the incumbent president by making plans or conducting deep policy exchanges with other countries. America holds dear the principle that it has only one president at a time.

So it’s probably best to focus on spring 2021 for any concrete signs of Biden’s Middle East policy priorities. Recall that it always takes a few weeks to name proposed cabinet members, and with a Republican controlled Senate (still to be finally determined), Biden may not have his team in place for several weeks or more.

Biden may have an opportunity to start out on a positive note by helping along multilateral diplomacy on Libya. That internal struggle seems to be on a path to resolution, thanks to the persistent work of UN diplomats Ghassan Salame and his deputy, Stephanie Williams. They worked from 2018 to early 2020 to launch a process for political reconciliation, only to be countered by permanent members of the Security Council and by regional powers including Egypt, Turkey and the UAE. Those parties had turned the internal Libyan struggle into a proxy war for their larger regional power competition.

But with the help of key European states, Salame and Williams established the parameters of an agreement to end the violence, remove foreign fighters, resume oil production and build a political process for new elections and a new government. Despite the odds, the ceasefire is holding and Salame – who stepped down in the spring for health reason – said recently that prospects for ending the war are better than ever.

For the Biden administration, it could be a lucky opportunity to support the UN and demonstrate that the US will provide more attention and political support for multilateral efforts. It might also find it propitious to reopen the American embassy in Tripoli, after security conditions forced the US to relocate its diplomats to Malta and then Tunis.

A more stable Libya will make it easier for the new administration to engage the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean over the larger issues of gas exploration and exploitation that have pitted Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece against Turkey, which has taken a very assertive position on its maritime claims, and has included Libya in its sphere of influence. Should the regional states scale back their intervention in Libya and support the UN process, it could show that new forms of regional cooperation are possible. Without knowing who the next US secretary of state will be, one can still assume that US diplomacy will be conducted with more attention to the long-term interests of the parties, more willingness to facilitate regional problem-solving and more predictable and productive engagement with Mediterranean governments and institutions.

But Libya also has some downsides for the Biden team. It was when Obama and Biden were in the White House that things fell apart, from the decision to intervene in 2011 but not to stay to establish stability post-Qaddafi, to the tragic loss of four American diplomats in Benghazi in 2012. Just as Obama was reluctant to overcommit the US in a conflict he saw as more important for Europe, today’s Biden also is considered quite cautious about new interventions. Nonetheless, the virtue of an active Biden policy on Libya is that the conflict is in a diplomatic phase now, where the US can use its rediscovered leadership to advance that diplomatic process, with little or no risk of a costlier military entanglement.

Compared to other Middle East trouble spots, such as Syria or Yemen, Libya may be the low-hanging fruit. Those other conflicts are more complicated because of the roles of Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would take a greater effort and more time for the new administration to prepare to reengage on those civil wars.

Unforeseen and often tragic events in the Middle East can demand a US response. But absent any major crisis, the new administration will try to shape its Middle East policies around Biden’s global themes of revalidating alliances, strengthening democracies as the best antidote to rising authoritarianism, and supporting multilateral efforts to end conflicts and to address the great transnational threats from climate change, terrorism and pandemic health crises. Libya would be a good place to underscore those broad principles.

Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service.