Libya Isn’t Hillary’s Fault, Says Libyan
Republicans say Hillary Clinton botched the Libyan intervention, but Libya's ambassador says his country only has its own incompetent governments to blame.
Deciding who to blame for Libya’s descent into chaos after the 2011 ouster of former strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi has become something of a big power parlor game. Was it British Prime Minister David Cameron, ever eager to reassert London’s great power status? Bernard-Henri Lévy, the perma-tanned French philosopher who coaxed then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy into backing Libya’s revolutionaries? Or, as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders argue, was it Hillary Clinton, who persuaded President Barack Obama to enter a war he never really believed in?
Amid the recriminations, no one ever points the finger at the Libyans themselves — except, that is, for Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, who bluntly faulted a succession of post-Qaddafi leaders he served for squandering a historic opportunity to lead the country toward a better future. Libya’s post-revolution governments, Dabbashi said, have been so incompetent that even the simplest of tasks, like delivering the mail, were beyond their meager administrative abilities.
“Let me say that nothing was wrong with the coalition intervention in Libya,” Dabbashi told Foreign Policy in an interview at Libya’s U.N. mission. “The mistake was a Libyan mistake, and the main problem was that none of the governments of the past five years had any experience in state management.”
The ongoing debate over the Libya intervention underscores the degree to which Qaddafi’s overthrow has continued to endure as a major foreign-policy issue of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and one that is viewed largely in the public discourse as a symbol of American overreach in an age of terrorism. It is also propelling obscure Libyan players like Dabbashi into the limelight as the U.S. and its European allies signal plans to return to the North African country in a limited military role to confront the Islamic State and contain the deadly flight of migrants.
Throughout Libya’s turbulent transition, Dabbashi has stood out as a rare constant in the Libyan firmament, a survivor in a country where political leaders come and go with remarkable frequency. Since the final days of Qaddafi’s reign, Dabbashi has served as the enduring face of Libya before the international community. Repeated efforts by his political enemies and former allies to have him fired have foundered.
Libya’s 66-year-old envoy remains a relatively unknown figure outside of Turtle Bay. But as the most prominent diplomat to break with Qaddafi in 2011, he arguably did as much as Clinton to pave the way for NATO intervention in Libya. It is almost unthinkable the world would have convened at the United Nations to confront Qaddafi’s excesses if it were not for the dire warnings from his own emissaries that Libyan civilians faced near-certain slaughter.
Today, the Libyan ambassador is seeking to avert what he sees as another major disaster. Dabbashi is alarmed by a report that the United States may be planning to provide equipment and training to Libya’s militias that pledge allegiance to the government of Fayez al-Serraj to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown. Serraj is the prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord, the internationally recognized Libyan government that was established by the U.N.-brokered Libya Political Agreement.
While Dabbashi is a staunch foe of Libya’s Islamists, and recognizes the legitimacy of Serraj’s government, he fears the U.S. plan will undermine efforts to develop a national army, strengthening the very militias that have impeded Libya’s struggles to build enduring institutions.
“This is a very dangerous path,” Dabbashi said. The army, he said, is the only force that “may bring the country together” and support the political process. Backing the militias that helped topple Qaddafi will simply replace the Islamic extremists with “a new gang of people” roiling Libya’s politics.
Some observers have dismissed Dabbashi’s protests, saying there is no unified Libyan army, and that he is simply promoting the interests of a key ally, Maj. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the divisive commander of the so-called Libyan National Army, which has vied for power in the post-Qaddafi years among upward of 200 other militias. The LNA, which receives political and military support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is by far the strongest armed faction and is in a position to play kingmaker. It’s the only militia resembling a functional military (in terms of command structure, equipment, and tactics), and the only unit capable of winning decisive battles in different parts of the country. The U.S., according to officials, has not made a final decision on its military support in Libya, and has pledged to coordinate any military assistance with Libya’s newly appointed prime minister.
But Dabbashi can’t be ignored. In the weeks and months ahead, the Libyan diplomat will be critical to Western efforts to gain U.N. backing to contain the Islamic State and halt the flow of refugees into Europe.
U.S. and European officials need his support for a U.N. resolution currently under debate that would authorize European ships to interdict boats suspected of smuggling arms to the Islamic State. Diplomats say Dabbashi has been receptive to the idea.
But gaining Dabbashi’s support has not always been easy. More than a year ago, Dabbashi scuppered a British push to secure U.N. authorization to land European vessels on Libyan shores to stem the tide of migration by pursuing human smugglers. British diplomats sought to bypass him by securing a green light for a European naval force from Dabbashi’s political superiors. They failed.
“That is something that I don’t like. They know there are no professionals in Tripoli or anywhere in Libya to deal with these issues,” Dabbashi said of the British gambit. “They have to come back and discuss it with us…. We have the experts here.”
Dabbashi spends his days shuttling between U.N. headquarters and Libya House, the Libyan mission to the United Nations, that serves as its own symbol of Libya’s aspirations to become a normal member of the international community.
For decades, the mission on 48th Street has stood as a hulking shell of a midtown Manhattan high-rise. Economic sanctions imposed during the Reagan administration long prevented Libya from renting out excess space in its 24-story building. Dabbashi recently oversaw a $1.5 million face-lift for the exterior, and approved a $30 million contract to renovate of the building. Once completed, the upper four floors will house the ambassador’s residence and provide office space for 15 diplomats. The rest will be leased out at market rates, once Libya gains approval from the State Department.
For now, the Libyan mission still feels partially abandoned. A walk from the elevator to the ambassador’s office leads past a warren of empty offices and conference rooms. Gone is a picture of Qaddafi which once hung over the ambassador’s desk. In its place is a portrait of Omar Mukhtar, the legendary Libyan resistance fighter immortalized in the film Lion of the Desert and executed by Libya’s Italian colonizers. The few vestiges of the former dictatorship include a set of black leather chairs and a large silver boombox that Dabbashi has only used a couple times to sooth his nerves with classical music.
It was here that Dabbashi — then an obscure Libyan foreign service officer — stepped forward on Feb. 21, 2011, to lead his country’s diplomatic insurgency at the U.N. In a faintly remembered statement, Dabbashi convened the press at Libya’s mission to lay out the road map for Qaddafi’s demise. He proposed prosecuting Qaddafi and his supporters for war crimes, imposing a no-fly zone, and urging Libyans to rise up against their ruler. The Libyan leader, Dabbashi demanded before the U.N. Security Council, must step down “as soon as possible.”
Over the following months, Dabbashi — the second-in-command at the Libyan mission — played a critical, if largely unsung role, in nudging the West and its Arab allies into pursuing war crimes charges against Qaddafi’s inner circle and intervening in Libya. In the days following Dabbashi’s declaration of independence from Qaddafi, Libya’s U.N. Ambassador Abdel Rahman Shalgham, a longtime regime loyalist, remained hunkered down in his residence atop Libya House. The chief of mission emerged for a closed-door briefing with the Security Council, where he blamed the violence on anti-government armed forces. Shalgham also urged his own government to end its violence against demonstrators while continuing, for the time being, to pledge allegiance to Qaddafi.
But Dabbashi gradually persuaded his then-boss to turn on Qaddafi in time to urge the Security Council to adopt a resolution imposing sanctions on the Libyan regime. Hours before the February 24 council vote, Dabbashi approached Shalgham to see where he stood. “We are in a stage where it is either black or white,” he said. “I was surprised that he told me “Ibrahim, I am now with you.”
Dabbashi’s role in opposing Qaddafi’s regime enhanced his standing in Libya, and he was a considered a front-runner for the post of foreign minister in 2012. Dabbashi said three members of parliament had assured him he was the only candidate. But two hours before the announcement, he was informed that the job had gone to someone else. In hindsight, Dabbashi said he is lucky he didn’t get the job, noting that reforming the Libyan Foreign Ministry during the post-Qaddafi era was a Herculean feat.
But Dabbashi — who has earned a reputation as something of a lone wolf who often ignores instructions from his superiors — has frequently clashed with his political bosses.
“I really don’t care that much who is leading the government,” he said in the interview. “As a career diplomat, I have to follow the interests of the Libyan people.”
Dabbashi has fended off repeated attempts to dislodge him from his post since 2011, when Qaddafi responded to his diplomatic insurrection by trying to install a former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister and Maryknoll priest, Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, as his U.N. envoy. That move stalled after the United States questioned Libya’s right to appoint Brockmann to the diplomatic post since he had entered the United States on a tourist visa.
Since then, Dabbashi has weathered attempts from within his own government to recall him or replace him. But he has shrugged off the latest efforts by some of his former bosses to bring him down, including former Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Dairi and Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.
With Dabbashi as their man at the U.N., the two officials served in the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk when at the time, it was one of two rival governing factions in Libya. After the Tobruk-based House of Representatives rejected initial unity government proposals, Dabbashi voiced support for the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, breaking with his allies in Tobruk, who now sought to remove him. He said that their attempts to have him fired or recalled to Libya had no legal basis and that he had no intention of stepping down.
Dabbashi, meanwhile, attributes his survival to a lack of political ambitions.
“There are many political figures who ask me to join their party and I always tell them I am a career diplomat will never join any political party,” he said. “I don’t have any alliance or allegiance to anyone.”
Brian Stout contributed to this report.
Photo Credit: XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch