Hearing Notes – U.S. Policy in Libya

On June 15, 2016, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “U.S. Policy in Libya.” The witness was State Department Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer. To watch a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) opened the hearing by noting how Libya is a “textbook case” of what not to do in foreign policy. He stated that U.S. policy in Libya is unclear, and he saw the point of the hearing as an attempt to “understand what is an achievable outcome in Libya that is in line with U.S. interests, and at what cost.” He questioned the training and arming of the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) militia and national guard, especially considering the United States’ past experiences in arming Libyan security forces and the lessons the United States learned from doing so. He highlighted Libyans who have been sanctioned because they inhibited the formation of the unity government, and questioned whether the U.S. government is prepared to do so in the future. Noting the failure of U.S. policy in Libya following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, Corker suggested that a lack of ‘day-after’ planning significantly hindered Libya’s progress.

Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) began his remarks by stressing that U.S. actions in Libya must be based off a real strategy, otherwise the United States will recreate the same problems it has created elsewhere. The United States needs to enhance the GNA’s legitimacy by helping it against the Islamic State, he said, and stop the refugee crisis to enhance its prosperity. He also expressed concern over the United States’ “unending” war on terror without Congressional approval, while also noting that Libya is fractured between an old order and a new order, as well as by tribes, and that the United States must seek a balanced Libyan policy, not just an expedient one.

The statement prepared by witness Jonathan Winer, State Department Special Envoy for Libya, began with a focus on the GNA and how supporting it is in the best interests of the United States. He also noted growing economic challenges in Libya, especially as Libyan oil production decreased in 2015 from 1.5 million barrels per day to 350,000 barrels per day. The progress that the GNA has made since its inception is admirable, he said, adding that “the GNA has demonstrated its commitment to inclusiveness and national reconciliation and begun the critical work of rebuilding the Libyan state.” He referred to the United States’ support for the GNA, especially in the GNA’s effort to bring the various armed actors in Libya under a consolidated command structure. Additionally, the United States and its international partners are currently working together to determine what assistance can be provided, after GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj announced plans to seek equipment and training for GNA forces. Winer emphasized the necessity for the GNA to address systemic governance and justice issues, as well as humanitarian relief needs, while also noting that the United States has provided $35 million to “help Libya’s political transition produce an accountable and effective national government” using FY 2016 and prior year funds. The FY 2017 request of $20.5 million will enable quick responses to Libya’s emerging needs, he said.

To begin the Q&A portion of the hearing, Chairman Corker asked if it was possible for the GNA to put Libya back together, citing large amounts of fragmentation in the nation and the region as a whole. Winer responded that a united Libya is critical for continued stability, saying that any division of the state would be “disastrous” for the Libyan people and the region. Corker followed up with an inquiry into the length of time it would take for the GNA to reunify the country, to which Winer responded that the GNA has already made significant progress toward that goal in the 75 days of its existence.

The Chairman then inquired if the Islamic State (IS) was the unifying force against which different Libyan factions have come together, which Winer agreed was a relevant element. Corker raised concerns that if IS were to fall in Libya, another civil war would break out in the nation. Once again, the witness emphasized that the GNA is critical to avoiding further conflicts in the nation as a transitional force toward consolidating a functioning state. In order to avoid a collapse of unity in the absence of a common enemy, Winer stressed that the GNA must provide services to its citizens, especially in traditionally underserved areas, and that all municipalities and parties in the Libyan state must work together to ensure further political development. When questioned about the feasibility of this cooperation in the face of significant regional divisions, the witness acknowledged the difficulty, but  also stated his believe that the Libyan people are committed to working towards a solution. Given Libya’s potential oil wealth and the work already achieved by the Presidency Council, Winer indicated that he believes that the Libyan people have the tools for success.

Corker questioned what role the United States continues to play in Libya, citing the relatively small amount of resources the United States provides and his own discomfort with the United States’ historical involvement in Libya. In response, Winer agreed that the United States’ aid package to Libya is comparatively small and noted that the United States is part of a UN-led international coalition working with Libyans to find a solution. The UN mission in Libya and the European Union are providing a large amount of critical assistance to the Libyan nation, while assistance funds requested by the United States government have gone toward supporting the work of the GNA and creating talks that will bring the people of Libya together.

Senator Cardin inquired as to whether foreign nations were considering sending ground troops into Libya, to which Winer responded that he was not aware of any such intention beyond training and technical support. Cardin then asked a series of questions about U.S. military action and intervention in Libya, which Winer preferred to discuss in another setting with the participation of other parts of the United States government.

Cardin, noting the fairly optimistic report given by Mr. Winer on the successes of the unity government, indicated that the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Libya would be a key sign of success in the nation and inquired as to the likelihood of that event occurring. Winer affirmed that the U.S. government would like to reopen the embassy and is looking into the possibility, but cautioned that security concerns must be evaluated prior to that occurring. Winer stressed that ensuring diplomatic security is the most critical priority, after which other parts of the administration as well as Congress would have to concur. Cardin then asked about the capacities of the Libyan people to fight IS with or without the GNA. Mr. Winer stressed that the GNA is critical to the fight against IS, noting the loss of territory to the terrorist group when Libya was divided and the successes seen since the GNA was instituted.

Finally, Cardin noted the significant trafficking problem throughout Libya, the lack of good governance and corruption in the government, and the large number of Libyans in need of humanitarian aid. He then asked about the prognosis for a strong government that is able to take on these issues in a meaningful manner and inquired if the United States and its international partners are making humanitarian assistance and good governance a high priority. While Winer could not give a probability of success, he noted that the UN has endorsed a resolution that would help to combat trafficking and stop the flow of illegal weapons to Libya. The witness also assured the Senator that the United States continues to work with the Central Bank, the National Oil Company, and the Presidency Council to reduce the humanitarian crisis and solve the liquidity problem.

Later in the hearing, Cardin reemphasized that democracy and accountability for good governance must be priorities to ensure any future prospects for the country’s stability. Winer remarked that the young people of Libya are a key constituency for creating political dialogue and continuing the work of the unity government to create a more stable and democratic society.

Senator David Perdue (R-GA) questioned Libya’s future financial stability, noting that oil makes up 97 percent of Libya’s revenue and oil prices are down, while its oil reserves are only projected to last for another 3-9 years. Regarding the prospects of a financial crisis, Winer stated that Libya’s finances are a core focus of the United States, and that Libya needs to be pumping oil again to ensure its success and undertake significant political reform. Libya needs to return to its pre-war oil production of 1.5 million barrels per day. Senator Perdue also asked if IS posed a threat to Libya’s oil and what the impact of the UN Security Council’s recent resolution (which allows the UN member states  to seize illicit weapons off the Libyan coast) would be. Winer answered that IS does pose a threat to Libya’s oil, but that Libya’s oil pipelines run North-South instead of East-West, so IS is currently unable to steal and exploit Libya’s oil. He also said that the United States does not know exactly where IS is getting its arms. They believe it may be from domestic sources, however, if any regional group gets U.S. arms it could lead to further disunity. Winer finished answering by emphasizing that right now, Libya needs a negotiating process. It also needs to have regional players agree on a common course and they must press others to help, and local Libyan communities must get benefits from the formation of the GNA and future reforms to ensure that Libyans are invested in the state and trust it.

Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) each opened their time by asking Winer what it would take for the Libyan crisis to become worse than the crisis in Syria. Winer replied that if regional players refuse to cooperate and IS is allowed to grow and flourish, if Libya continues to lose its oil revenues and cannot pay its workers or improve its economy, and if the humanitarian crisis is left unresolved, then the Libyan conflict has the potential to become much worse. He stressed that IS is weakened by the fact that it does not control Libyan oil pipelines and currently has no stable revenue, and that Libya and the US must take advantage of that weakness. Markey then noted that the GNA has progressed in its fight against IS. He asked what the administration is doing to bring the House of Representatives and General Haftar together with the GNA: Are they  pushing the HoR and General Haftar into an agreement? Are they working with Egypt and the UAE, historical allies of General Haftar, to help bring together the different parties? Winer reported that they want General Haftar to be part of the solution to Libya’s current problems, but that the General cannot play the only role in the process. Egypt and the UAE have both signed on to support the unity government and have agreed to help be a part of the solution. Gardner ended his time by asking why the administration decreased their budget request for Libyan support from $35 million in its FY16 budget to $27 million in its FY17 budget. Winer’s answer noted that the administration is focused on improving services to Libyan communities and finishing the writing of a new constitution, and that the administration also wants to work with the UN, EU, and others instead of attempting to help Libya alone.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked what international actors can impose on the competing Libyan groups to bring them closer together. Winer stressed that political mechanisms in Libya are needed, and that the administration wants to align international players in a common approach to combat Libya’s challenges long enough for Libya to move on to the next stage of its development. He also said that oil revenues are crucial for Libya’s economic, and tangentially its political, development. Menendez finished his questioning by asking how the United States could ensure that its allies are not undermining the GNA. Winer emphasized that the administration has spoken with United States allies and international actors about not supporting other factions.