There have been varied views regarding the purpose of Assistant Secretary of State William Burns’s recent visit to Libya. Some believe that it pertains to the general American interests in Libyan affairs, while others believe it is to make arrangements to strike at extremist militant groups.
In the absence of accurate and verified information, we cannot confirm the purpose of the visit. We can however initially surmise that there concerns were raised about the stalled transition process, nation building and their repercussions.
U.S. policy in the region
Many observers expressed sharp criticism of the foreign policy pursued by the US President Barack Obama’s second term. They argue that the White House does not have a clear foreign policy and that the US is under the influence of pressures that have weakened its foreign presence.
Notwithstanding, it is necessary to differentiate between two matters in this regard. The first relates to casting judgment on Obama’s foreign policy in comparison with George W. Bush’s interventionist policy and the “regime change” operations he carried out at the beginning of the millennium. The result would be different given that Obama aimed to address the legacy of the first policy.
The second matter is judging Barack Obama’s choices in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy, especially with regard to the Middle East during the critical stage associated with the changes brought about by the Arab Spring. With regards to this, we can say that America’s foreign policy was not clear or consistent during the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, but is now becoming clearer as the scene in the region becomes clearer. Thus it is possible to say that the two critical pillars of the policy are:
- Combatting the threat of terrorism
- Ensuring that the democratic transition does not threaten Israel’s security and influence in the region
There is no question about Washington’s determination to prevent the emergence of a regional power that is capable of threatening U.S. interests or the security of Israel. It is in this context that some explain the invasion of Iraq, the decline of Syria, and the re-shuffling in Egypt. On the other hand, perhaps Washington has realised that the chaos and tendency to destroying a state is not a positive choice in light of the growth of extreme Islamist forces that see the fragmentation of the state as an opportunity to grow and expand.
Perhaps the American choice is to maintain the Arab Spring countries in a suspended state, keeping them in a place that does not allow their fall into the hands of the radicals, while at the same time not allowing them to recover and become effective regional players.
The position towards the Islamic trend
The experience of the Arab Spring revealed the fact that Washington did not want to exclude the Islamists from being partners in governing, however it did not hide the fact it did not want the Islamists to be the sole authority. Some have explained the Americans’ keenness on the rise of the Islamic movements to power, along with other partners, as a means to test and contain the Islamists on the condition that it does not violate their security concerns in the sense that if Washington is sure that the Islamists will stay in line with them in terms of combatting the extremists, then Washington will support their rise to authority. However, this does not mean Washington will allow the Islamists to be the sole authority. At the same time, it will not cut off communication with the opposition forces, as they will be their replacement in the event there is a need to undermine the rule of the Islamists.
The aim of Burns’s visit to Libya
By examining the interviews conducted by Burns with the political parties, we can say that America’s policy still remains undecided with regards to the political process in Libya.
It can also be said that the Assistant Secretary of State’s visit is mainly exploratory in two ways. First, it was undertaken to examine the February authority’s preparations to face the challenges and what potential there was for the success of the political process in order to escape the bottleneck scenario. Secondly, it may have been an attempt to explore opportunities to co-ordinate on two fronts; first, to increase the strength of the state in order to support the political process and enhance the security institutions and increase collaboration to combat extremism.
The American reading of the situation in Libya and the options for dealing with it
Burns’s assurances of Washington’s willingness to support the army and police institutions reflects the U.S. policy’s aim is to combine support for the fight against terrorism and democracy, as they are viewed as inseparable. Washington believes that the importance of the latter lies in ensuring the containment of the former.
The visit also confirms the presence of a growing American concern regarding the diminishing opportunities to progress in the Libyan democratic process, due to the growing internal challenges and the weakness of external support. This growing concern is based on the increasing decay of the remnants of the state institutions and the rising influence of the groups whose existence threaten the structure and establishment of the state.
On the other hand, it is not far-fetched that these Americans concerns will be translated into a military operation aimed at uprooting and eliminating the groups and entities that continue to grow and multiply. Furthermore, targeting such groups will certainly increase the risk of chaos, which serves the radical forces, but I do not believe that Washington has the ability to present a support strategy that could reduce the causes of tension and enhance the chances of consensus over the basics of transition and state-building, as well as emphasising the urgent need for international support for Libya in light of its current difficult situation. The European Union must get involved in order to balance America’s position. Meanwhile there is a pressing need for an internal agreement to resolve all disputes and reach a strategy that determines the limit of US and European support, as well as the position towards any potential and direct American intervention in Libyan affairs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.