In a phone call with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar earlier in April, President Trump gave the impression that he condoned the warlord’s attack on the capital city of Tripoli to depose the U.N.-backed government, according to American officials who spoke with Bloomberg. White House resident hawk and national-security adviser John Bolton also reportedly gave the impression that the Trump administration approved of Haftar’s April 4 assault, which has killed at least 264 and displaced around 35,000 individuals.
Earlier in April, the White House gave a different impression of the president’s contact with Haftar. In a statement issued on April 19, four days after the conversation between the two leaders, the White House stated that Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”
Critics argue that addressing Haftar with the title of “field marshal” undermined the authority of the U.N.-backed government led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. Haftar, who lived in Virginia for around 20 years before returning to Libya in 2011 for the uprising that deposed Muammar Qaddafi, has been called “Libya’s most potent warlord.” Haftar’s Libyan National Army is supported by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates and is in control of much of Libya’s east and south. While Haftar claims his move on the capital is a counter-terrorist effort, the U.N. envoy to Libya called the maneuver “more like a coup than counter-terrorism.”
The April 19 announcement of their contact and the Bloomberg report surprised both the international community and, most likely, Trump’s own administration. On April 19, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that a “military solution is not what Libya needs” and that the Pentagon and the White House are “well-aligned on Libya.” But it appears that Shanahan did not account for the possible influence of other authoritarian-leaning powers in the region. As Bloomberg reports:
Trump’s conversation with Haftar took place after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met with the U.S. president on April 9 and urged him to back Haftar, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a Haftar supporter, the day before the White House issued the statement acknowledging the call with Haftar.
Trump giving his own administration the foreign-policy runaround is yet another example of his approach in the Middle East and North Africa: favoring the word of authoritarian governments — particularly ones on the Arabian Peninsula — at the expense of his own Cabinet’s suggestions and the American intelligence community. Consider past examples of extremely similar behavior, like when Trump decided to pull American troops from Syria while on the phone with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or his refusal in November 2018 to condemn Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death of Jamal Khashoggi: “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
For governments abroad, the president’s reported support of Khalifa Haftar is another successful template for how to influence American foreign policy in the Trump era. For Trump, it appears to be an opportunity to bulk up the list of strongmen he can call on for foreign-policy advice.