“And hell, if General Haftar was going to win, President Trump would happily give him some tips about where to buy vacation properties in Virginia Beach. His steering of the private ‘confidence building’ chit-chat with General Haftar to real estate matters was not actually as ridiculous as it might seem.”
Writer’s note: My new book Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder, which was published with Oxford University Press in February of 2022, sketches the connections linking the rise and fall of neo-populism in the White House and 10 Downing Street with issues such as climate change and tax havens, as well as major geopolitical hotspots like Libya, Ukraine, and Syria. I contend that geostrategic conflict zones such as Ukraine and Libya showcase certain fundamental truths about our new era of geopolitics, which I term “the Enduring Disorder.”
Drawing on multidisciplinary source material, I demonstrate that dysfunction in key economic and strategic nodes like post-Soviet Ukraine and post-Qaddafi Libya have facilitated the rise of neo-populist leaders in the West. My book examines Libya and other hotspots as microcosms to glean the fundamental principles of our new post-post-Cold War era.
Specially for Merion West readers, we present the below portion of the book focused on how the team of former President Donald Trump formulated its policies toward Libya and Ukraine. It explains the concept of the Enduring Disorder and presents a behind the scenes look at the famous phone calls between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and between President Trump and Libyan National Army Leader Khalifa Haftar, both of which took place in 2019. The excerpt comes from the book’s preface “WELCOME TO THE ENDURING DISORDER.”
oday’s international system is like a ship adrift during a pandemic. With the captain lost to the virus—and the most capable and conscientious members of the crew self-isolating in their cabins—the deck is now teeming with contagious megalomaniacs. Rather than collaborate, each thinks he knows how to steer the ship better than the admirals.
As the winds pick up, a fight breaks out among those scrambling to infiltrate the bridge. When the winners emerge from this melee and reach the captain’s chair, some choose deliberately to steer into the choppiest waters—each clutching the steering wheel until a competitor bursts in behind them and ejects them from the hot seat. As the vessel craters from stem to stern, those with fainter constitutions or a greater respect for the competency hierarchy have simply chosen to retire to their cabins.
Will the crew eventually re-emerge from their quarters to put the technocrats back in charge? Might the most reckless passenger subjugate the others, lock the convalescent crew members in their quarters, and emerge as the new de facto captain? Or could some sort of self-sustaining equilibrium have been reached with the vessel zigging and zagging indefinitely, neither capsizing nor reaching port?
From my vantage point, watching the United States’ policy toward Libya veer this way and that over the years, the events of the spring and summer of 2019 stood out as a high watermark of chaos and contradiction with a multiplicity of relevant actors vying for prominence. They were also representative in microcosm of larger global trends. Witnessing them led me to question my assumptions about the West’s future role in the world and the fundamental principles underpinning the international system. It was dawning on me that the contemporary ship of state had become permanently unmoored, careening back and forth due to contradictory decisions undertaken by ill-coordinated power centers.
Plato envisioned such a scenario in The Republic. He warned that true democracy would lead to populism. Contempt for experts would ensue, eventually culminating in short-sighted and reversal-prone approaches to policy formation. He also warned that once this point was reached, it would be nearly impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.
Over the last few years, my day-to-day experience of the foreign policymaking process in Washington, London, and Tunis, as well as the resulting outcomes in Libya, seemed to be embodying Plato’s forecasts. In keeping with this observation, this book proposes that the international system has exited the post-Cold War period with its well-established features and dynamics and entered a new historical epoch, termed the Enduring Disorder. This new period, which remains under-researched, is characterized by its own structures, trends, and interactions. They are not scientific laws that can be definitively discovered through experimentation but, rather, patterns and trendlines that need to be intuited from lived experience.
My main contentions about our historical moment are interrelated: (1) that the international system’s interaction with Libya is an ideal arena to describe the key features of this new historical era but that study of the Syrian, Yemeni, Venezuelan, or Ukrainian microcosms would likely work as well; and (2) that the Enduring Disorder will long outlast the specific sequence of events set in motion by former President Donald Trump or any given Libyan warlord.
My analysis is that their emergence on the world stage was merely symptomatic of the Enduring Disorder and not its root cause. Actually, it is the Enduring Disorder that has given rise to President Trump, Brexit, and the unique trajectories of state implosion that have befallen Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
A Clandestine War on the Banks of the Potomac
On the ground in Libya in May of 2019, the latest round of civil war had settled into an uneasy stalemate. Economic activity was stymied, the water and electricity grids were periodically shut down by the combatants, civilian casualties mounted, and international peace-making efforts had ground to a halt. The previously bustling southern suburbs of Tripoli were now crisscrossed by the ebb and flow of tanks and technicals. A parallel war of maneuver was also unfolding on the banks of the Potomac. The allies of President Trump sought to outflank the permanent institutions of the United States government in the tussle to shape American policy toward Libya’s perpetual conflict. This was yet another skirmish between familiar adversaries.
In the prior battles between Team Trump and the American institutions to set various aspects of Russia, Ukraine, and Middle East policy, each side had already demonstrated its unique strengths and weaknesses. This dynamic of Team Trump versus the institutions would become intimately familiar to all Americans during the tug-of-war to set the governmental response to the Covid pandemic.
So what was the relative tactics of the adversaries? President Trump’s Twitter bravado was highly effective at manipulating the media but usually quite impotent at formally changing entrenched governmental policies. Was the President actually trying to change American policy but exhibiting a lack of understanding of the tools open to the executive branch, or was he achieving his aim simply by strewing confusion, creating uncertainty, and preventing coherent coordination with the United States’ traditional allies? Was the mere existence of the War on the Banks of the Potomac a victory for him, independent of the result of any of the skirmishes?
Conversely, American institutions such as the United States Departments of State and Defense have robust procedures and deep bureaucratic inertia that help them to stay the course, even when pressured by appointed partisans. However, they are prevented from using the media in a savvy way to communicate their official stances or to call attention to internal malfeasance. Furthermore, Congress has the power to hold hearings, subpoena documents, withhold funds, and call for investigations, but it is only able to transcend its partisan divisions for relatively limited and uncomplicated objectives.
This internecine American fight over Libya has been mirrored by its allies’ bureaucracies approach to the Libya file. In certain Italian administrations, such as that of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the Interior Ministry dominated Libya policy and quashed interagency rivals. In other Italian administrations, the portfolio was led by the Prime Minister’s Office, as happened under Silvio Berlusconi, or the Foreign Ministry, as was the case under Paolo Gentiloni. In France, the President’s Office and certain key individuals like Jean-Yves Le Drian have taken turns sidelining the permanent staff of the Quai d’Orsay in the formulation of Libya policy.
To further increase the complexity, the United States’ French and Italian allies were also constantly feuding with each other over Libya–each with their own specific business, migration, counterterror, and security interests. Conversely, the British, who traditionally attempted to harmonize otherwise divergent Western approaches toward the Middle East, had largely absented themselves from non-European foreign policy issues as Brexit negotiations sucked up most of their government capacity. At various times, certain American positions dovetailed with one of its top allies’ stated goals, but, at other times, they undermined them.
When Is a Phone Call More Than Just a Phone Call?
On April 7, 2019, three days after the latest phase of the Libya war broke out in Tripoli on April 4th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke the Trump Administration’s silence by issuing an unusually stern condemnation of the aggressor, General Khalifa Haftar, who had upended the United Nations peace process by attempting to conquer Tripoli just days before the flagship “National Conference” scheduled for April 14, 2019. General Haftar had even exhibited the unprecedented gall to launch his offensive by firing artillery shells into central Tripoli on the very day of Secretary General António Guterres’s visit. The symbolism was quite clear; General Haftar was calling the international community’s bluff. He might even have been acting on deep insights or intuitions about the prevailing international system. He certainly understood that at that precise moment, the international arena was far too disunited to mount a coordinated counterstroke against him, even in response to such brazen provocations.
Then, on April 19th, President Trump made a surprise announcement that he had held a phone call with General Haftar four days previously. The official call notes stated that the two men had discussed General Haftar’s role in global counterterrorism efforts. Subsequent leaks concerning the call have provided evidence that they may also have discussed investments in beachfront real estate and the Virginia property market.
Investigative reporting by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has since shown that the call was proximally occasioned by a request from Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi during an in-person Oval Office meeting on April 9th. At that same meeting, President Trump rebuffed President Sisi’s one concrete policy demand concerning Libya, namely to “recognize” General Haftar as having some sort of official status as Libya’s “sovereign.” President Trump conferred with his National Security Council (NSC) during a break in the meeting and then informed Sisi that that request would be impossible; American diplomatic practice concerning formal recognition of sovereign actors recognizes “states” (not governments or leaders) and, as such, did not allow President Trump to “recognize” General Haftar in the way that President Sisi had requested.
My discussions with various members of President Trump’s outer circle suggest that The New York Times’ reporting about the backstory to the call has uncovered most of the relevant chain of events, but that it could be wrong on one or two points. The New York Times reporting suggested that prior to President Sisi’s request, National Security Advisor John Bolton had advocated for such a call. My own research suggests that it was initiated solely by President Trump, and possibly his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as a favor to President Sisi (and inter alia the Saudis and Emiratis), in lieu of giving Sisi what he actually wanted—a formal change in the United States’ policy toward General Haftar. American sources close to events corroborate that, as part of the extended follow up from the April 9th Trump–Sisi meeting, President Trump did not promise President Sisi any specific future policy outcomes, merely that he would happily arrange to talk to General Haftar.
Despite these conflicting reports from journalists and eyewitness observers, there are a few things that we can know for certain about the April 15th call. One, is that no concrete policy proposals were, in fact, discussed and the call did not change official United States policy in its formal support for—and legal recognition of—General Haftar’s opponents, the Tripoli-based United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Despite this, the call did convincingly signal that the President “might,” at some indeterminate point in the future, be willing covertly to support General Haftar, while formally adhering to American commitments to the GNA.
Given this implication, the deliberate post-facto publicity about the call was consciously engineered by the White House to illustrate internationally that depending on changing battlefield conditions the United States “might” further support its Emirati and Egyptian allies by adopting a policy toward General Haftar more akin to France’s. Those in the Middle East who would favor such a development became media cheerleaders for this interpretation of the call. For example, a commentator for the pro-Haftar outlet Rai’i Al-Youm Libiyya wrote: “There is no explanation [for the phone call] between President Trump and Marshal Khalifa Haftar yesterday [other than] that [President Trump] approves of Haftar as the next Libyan president and [signals President Trump’s] complete support of the Egyptian, Saudi, and Emirati [positions toward General Haftar].”’
Despite this interpretation being pushed by cheerleading media, there could be no doubting that, if the flow of battle swung the other way, the United States might decisively revert to its established policy of backing the GNA and the United Nations peace process—an approach that is more in line with that of Britain, traditionally the United States’ closest ally on Libya.
The publicity surrounding the call certainly reinforced the notion that President Trump loves a winner. And hell, if General Haftar was going to win, President Trump would happily give him some tips about where to buy vacation properties in Virginia Beach. His steering of the private “confidence building” chit-chat with General Haftar to real estate matters was not actually as ridiculous as it might seem. For all those who think the former President would give just any aspiring dictator tips about the greater D.C. holiday property market, I am sorry to disappoint. President Trump was cleverly trying to find a point of common ground with General Haftar, whom he knew had spent more than two decades living in Virginia and whose family still owns various investment properties there.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Presidential phones are about a lot more than what is or is not said on the line. The whole world was to witness this phenomenon in the autumn of 2019 with the release of the partial transcripts of the July 25, 2019 phone call between President Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. American presidential calls in which the executive appears to be sending different signals from official State Department policy or Congressional legislation are particularly problematic. To what extent are a president’s innuendo or requests binding upon the rest of government? Do they constitute “policy”?
Furthermore, each call generates its own optics. Given this, people in power might wish to submerge entirely (or selectively reveal) certain details about contentious presidential phone calls to control those optics. As such, the official notes on the phone calls represent merely the visible tip of the iceberg of long-standing interagency and international struggles to set and coordinate public policy. One contentious phrase from the President’s mouth about “a favor” or “counterterrorism cooperation” represents an entire submerged iceberg of conflict on the banks of the Potomac. Such phrases may also be indicative of the geopolitical climate of the Enduring Disorder, where policy outcomes reflect the chaotic interplay of structural forces and personal incentives rather than well-coordinated attempts to maximize public utility.
The President Zelenskyy and General Haftar presidential phone calls mirrored an international situation and American foreign policy formation environment unlike anything seen in previous decades. The President of the United States was not setting a new, coherent, whole-of-government approach toward contentious American foreign policy; he was deliberately confusing and attempting to undermine specific aspects about the existing direction. The President was not using the powers vested in his office to foster order in the world or even to clarify America’s policy goals. He was mongering chaos and policy confusion. And his phone calls were just a symptom of larger developments in the global system writ-large, among them America’s inability to coordinate with its allies to protect their shared interests in geostrategic hotspots like Ukraine or Libya.
Jason Pack is the senior analyst for Emerging Challenges at the NATO Defense College Foundation, associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, and producer of the NATO and the Global Enduring Disorder Project.