Daniel R. DePetris
If the Middle East often seems like a real-world version of Game of Thrones, the sparsely populated country of Libya is perhaps better envisioned as Mad Max come to life. Eight years after the U.S.-led NATO military operation deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the North African state has become a shorthand for death, slavery, anarchy, civil war, and militia-imposed terror. Renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s weeks-old military offensive into Tripoli is now compounding misery for the Libyan people, for whom “liberation” has not meant peace and normality.
But the chaos and violence in Libya is political and local in nature. The ongoing violent contest for power between rival governments in the capital city’s southern suburbs simply doesn’t matter for America. Whether Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj or Gen. Hifter rules Tripoli is immaterial to U.S. national security, economic prosperity, or America’s geopolitical power. With no direct security interests, little economic stake in the country (U.S.-Libya bilateral trade in 2017 was a paltry $1.5 billion), and minimal political leverage among the key Libyan powerbrokers, there is no strategic rationale to again dive into the minutiae of Libya’s tribulations.
For the United States, the problems engulfing Libya are unfortunate but peripheral to more important foreign policy priorities. This is not the case, however, for Europe.
France and Italy have direct equities inside their North African neighbor to the south—including energy companies like Total and ENI—which benefit from favorable governments to function efficiently and make a profit. Combined exports and imports between Libya and the European Union reached more than $17 billion in 2017, a small fraction in terms of the bloc’s overall GDP but still enough to give European governments a reason to attempt to tamp down the country’s civil conflict.
Rome in particular has the most incentive to keep the U.N.-facilitated political process alive. Italy is Libya’s top export destination, and Rome imports approximately $2.7 billion in Libyan petroleum products a year. Italy’s reliance on Libya for oil resources is greater now since it ended Iranian oil imports in anticipation of the Trump administration’s elimination of sanctions waivers critical to its energy needs. Other European countries face this same challenge.
In short, Libya’s political future is far more critical to Europe than the U.S. As such, it should be Europe—not America—which gets bogged down managing Libya’s conflict and eventual reconstruction.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most influential politician, has spent the last year calling on her fellow Europeans to take more responsibility for its own affairs. Merkel proclaimed during a November 2018 speech in the European Parliament, “The days where we can unconditionally rely on others are gone. That means that we Europeans should take our fate more into our own hands if we want to survive as a European community.”
This would ostensibly include problems and crises that directly impact European security, which Libya no doubt qualifies. It is in America’s interest for Europe to actually follow through on this plan. Europe should not be so weak that it must rely on U.S. taxpayers and servicemembers—now $22 trillion in debt and overextended after two consecutive decades of war—to ride to the rescue and bail out the continent whenever a national security challenge arises. If Europe—a populace, prosperous bloc of nations—can’t tend to the challenges in Libya—a small, poor, weak nation in its near abroad—exactly what can it contribute to America’s security?
America suffers from a Europe that has the capability to be strong and influential in its own neighborhood, yet chooses to remain a U.S. dependent. Europe should be far more proactive in addressing security threats before they get out of control and severely impact their interests. The U.S., frankly put, has no dog in the fight. Washington should stop confusing Europe’s problems for our own.
The turmoil in Libya is unfortunate, but it is disconnected from U.S. security, prosperity, and liberty. That is not true for Europe. At a time when the U.S. faces more important and direct challenges at home, and arguably in Asia, Washington should no longer “ride to the rescue” and do more to defend Europe than the Europeans are willing to do for themselves. The job of finding a temporary or permanent solution to Libya’s troubles belongs to our European allies.
One of the most consistent themes of President Trump’s foreign policy is burden sharing—shifting less important defense obligations to local partners and allies—and creating the space for the U.S. to disentangle itself from problems best left for other nations to resolve. Burden sharing, however, is not about how much money allies and partners spend on their militaries—it’s about forcing those partners to invest in maintaining security in their own regions. With Libya facing challenges, Europe should step up and deal with it. The U.S. should not devote its limited resources to such peripheral missions.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by Defense One on May 6, 2019. Read more HERE.