By Richard Lobban
Strategic thinking focuses on historical trends, the balance of forces, national and economic interests, ideology, naval choke points, diplomacy, information and the military capacity of friends and foes.
So it was in the bipolar Cold War until the 1990s, followed by a descendant multi-polar world, which is now evolving into a precarious new world order that needs strategic recalibration, especially along the southeastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Obviously, the Suez Canal is a highly strategic choke point.
Oil-addicted global economies make for energy vulnerability. The old cleavage between “communist” versus “capitalist” worlds is surmounted by revivalist extremisms in religion and nationalism. Weapons are widespread. Failed, failing or dictatorial states have thwarted the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Major undersea oil and gas fields are contested by Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel.
New Egyptian offshore gas fields and oil fields in the Western desert may resuscitate its ailing political economy. Two amphibious assault ships, built by France for Russia, were instead sold to Egypt along with new German submarines, to protect its new fields.
The unsolved Palestine-Israel-Gaza-Hamas-Sinai conflicts stay on a timer fuse. Thousands of African refugees are trafficked across, or drowning in, the Mediterranean while destabilizing a fearful, polarized Europe. The prolonged catastrophes in Syria (and its Putin-Assad alliance), South Sudan and Yemen have daily hemorrhages of horror. The “punitive” attack by President Donald Trump on Syrian aircraft has only resulted in “red lines” dripping more blood in high heat, but little light. Trans-Saharan insurgent-terrorists add their destabilizing and depressing miseries, making us long for the “good old days” of the Cold War.
For decades, Muammar Gaddafi ruled erratically with his “Green Book” to develop Libya while fomenting revolts, assassinations, corruption and harsh domestic repression, sustained by vast oil wealth and a small population.
The Arab Spring ignited in Tunisia in 2010, and spread in 2011 to Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, where it became an existential threat to both Gaddafi and his citizens. He was killed on Oct. 20, 2011.
Arms flooded across Libya and the Sahel. The success of the Libyan revolution created optimism in the West that the country would turn to democratic elections and a multiparty parliament.
Instead, on Sept. 11-12, 2012, Libyan extremists killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three aides in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. After spending millions of dollars and weeks on accusations of blame, U.S. Special Forces captured two of the alleged attackers.
By January 2014, the Libyan General National Congress (GNC) was deadlocked by diverse local militias. Aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar (now field marshal of the Libyan National Army) called for the overthrow of Libyan Islamists. By summer 2014, open warfare unfolded between Tripoli and Misrata militias against Haftar, who had ties to Gaddafi and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Elections promised for June 25, 2014, were stillborn. Haftar’s Operation Dignity was marketed by his enemies as an attempted coup, while the Islamist Ansar esh-Shari’a disrupted Benghazi, and the war on terrorism was inconclusive. The oil economy and the 2014 elections faltered; militia skirmishes worsened.
The new parliament was failing when Dawn factions from Misrata seized the Tripoli airport that July 13. By September 2014, the GNC, or Dawn, backed by the United Nations, Europe, Turkey, Qatar, the United States and various militias, clashed with Dignity, backed by Egypt, Russia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
These militias did rout Sirte of its murderous ISIS franchise but threatened critical oil ports. Now, in 2017, some oil production is restored, but remains vulnerable. Both the Tripoli “government” and the Benghazi “government” are being wooed by Moscow, with Haftar flying to Moscow and the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov steaming by Libya.
The Moroccan Accord of 2015, the cease-fires, and peace and unity negotiations, have all failed. Will the “legitimate” GNC al-Hisi prevail over Haftar’s LNA as new proxies of a warming Cold War? Will Western collaboration with Islamist militias be fatal? Will Haftar’s increasing control of the oil fields make him stronger or betray his personal ambitions?
It is late for a serious strategic doctrine based in morality and law — rather than hand-wringing — that addresses the interconnected high-stakes issues. Without it, it is impossible to fashion the tactical toolkit to see the way out, or ahead.