Libya summit, where VP Harris represents U.S., holds promise and risks for Biden administration

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, accompanied by French President Emmanuel Macron, leaves after their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

When world powers gather to discuss Libya’s future in Paris this week, they will cap years of global diplomacy aimed at ending a decade of post-revolution conflict and offer the Biden administration a chance to show it can advance solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems.

But the Friday summit, a key moment in Vice President Kamala Harris’s third official overseas trip, also poses substantial risks for the United States and its allies amid warnings that Western nations could stoke renewed conflict, or even bloodshed, by pushing for a vote before Libya is ready.

“The administration is on the horns of a dilemma,” said an individual familiar with the election effort, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Pushing for elections may precipitate violence, but it is equally possible a delay could drive violence. What is needed is a clear-eyed approach that recognizes Libyans’ right to elect their government, while acknowledging the necessary political agreement to ensure a free and fair election appears not to be in place.”

Harris will lead the U.S. participation in the high-level summit, jointly hosted by France, Italy and Germany. The encounter is expected to yield a renewed call for Libya, despite procedural problems and political feuding, to hold its first national elections in seven years as planned on Dec. 24.

Far from the heady hopes of the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime strongman Moammar Gaddafi with U.S. and NATO support, Libya has been consumed by internal conflict that has effectively divided the nation, impaired oil production and ignited a proxy war involving advanced weaponry and tens of thousands of fighters from Turkey, Russia, Syria and other countries.

While Libya does not figure among the Biden administration’s top foreign priorities, officials say they have redoubled their diplomacy, for example naming a Libya envoy, in hopes that ending the conflict will make for a less combustible region on Europe’s southern edge.

The administration has also sought to put an end to the ambiguity that characterized U.S. policy on Libya under President Donald Trump, whose administration at times signaled favor for a U.N.-backed interim government based in the western city of Tripoli, and at times for its rival, a Russian-supported eastern faction dominated by renegade general Khalifa Hifter.

While a tenuous calm has taken hold, thousands of foreign fighters, including Turkish government forces who were invited in by interim authorities in Tripoli, and Russian mercenary fighters aligned with powers in the east, remain, suggesting that clashes could flare anew. Russia will send its foreign minister to the summit, but Turkey has said it won’t participate because of the expected presence of Greece and other nations.

Now, the United States, like some of its European peers, hopes the planned presidential and parliamentary vote can unify Libya under a single authority and start healing its wounds.

Libyans have not coalesced around a national constitution, largely seen as one step on the path to political stability. The head of the national electoral body, meanwhile, has suggested that presidential and parliamentary elections might be held separately.

Six weeks out, it’s not even certain who will run for president, but candidates are expected to include Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who heads the interim government. Other contenders could include Hifter, an American citizen who faces U.S. lawsuits over alleged war crimes, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the former dictator’s son who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

Many advocates fear that holding the elections under such conditions could set the stage for a prolonged – and possibly violent – period of contestation by those who do not prevail. Libya since 2011 has been plagued by successive disputes over the legitimacy of various state actions and bodies, often without any widely accepted arbiter to resolve them.

A senior U.S. official, however, said the Biden administration had assessed the risks associated with delaying the elections were greater than holding them under current conditions. He noted that Libya had enjoyed a period of relative calm while election preparations have taken place.

“There was a kind of holding your breath on the expectation that Libya is moving forward with its political transition,” the official said. “If you take that election away, I would certainly be concerned about the risks of a return to violent conflict.”

It’s unclear whether international observers will be able to monitor the polls if and when elections occur.

Ben Fishman, who worked on Libya at the White House during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the appeal of elections was understandable but said it was equally important to have made the right technical preparations and to have in place political agreements to accept the results. “Everyone wants to see Libyans exercise their rights to vote,” he said. “The question is when and how.”

The European visit is a key moment for Harris, who is using the five-day trip to boost her foreign policy bona fides at a time when her party’s fortunes seem shaky at home. November has been a roller coaster for Democrats, marked by electoral losses in Virginia and legislative success on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

On Wednesday, Harris met with French President Emmanuel Macron, part of a White House attempt to smooth things over with Paris after the recent spat over a submarine sale.

Harris has used her foreign trips to highlight issues of gender and racial equity. In a statement, she said she was attending the Libya conference “to demonstrate our strong support for the people of Libya.”

Her performance in previous travels has been uneven. In June, she visited Guatemala and Mexico City as part of the administration’s attempt to address the root causes of migration. But the trip became a prime opportunity for critics to tie her to the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her second foreign trip, to Singapore and Vietnam, was overshadowed by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Ahead of the summit in Paris, U.S. officials describe strong support among Libyans for holding the votes. The biggest challenge, observers and officials agree, will be ensuring the departure of the foreign forces whose presence has significantly increased bloodshed in Libya in recent years.

The Biden administration thinks elections should go ahead in large part because an elected government may have greater “moral weight” to force those foreigners out, the U.S. official said.

“That government will be in a much stronger position and will have some kind of more heft to assert the type of security-military relationships it wants with foreign actors in a way that the interim government now is just not able to do,” he said.

While European powers support that goal, one Western diplomat cautioned that Libyans must come together to agree on what will make for a legitimate election if the vote is to have the intended effect.

“Particularly in this last stage before the showdown, we really hope that they maintain the pressure,” the diplomat said. “Ultimately, it’s up to

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