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Here’s a look at the American networks of influence used by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and rebel forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The lobbying race was kicked off with just one phone call.
When US President Donald Trump picked up his phone on 15 April 2019 to call Haftar, the question on everyone’s minds in the hallways of the US Department of State, the CIA and Congress was this: will the unpredictable US President pledge his support for the military offensive launched against Tripoli by the Libyan Marshal, who already has the backing of Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan?
The White House tried to defuse the controversy, explaining that the conversation was merely about anti-terrorism efforts and stability in Libya.
Nevertheless, the unexpected phone call shed some light on pro-Haftar lobbying in the US capital.
“These few minutes rattled everyone. The US President erased months of intense work,” said Hafed Al-Ghwell, an expert on Libya and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“Things had been going in the right direction for Fayez al-Serraj’s GNA.”
After the phone conversation, the GNA understood that it needed to step up its influence efforts in the United States and that lobbying – or, to put it more discreetly, “consulting” – operations had to be successful.
The GNA also grasped that under Trump’s presidency, foreign policy is determined more by K Street – the road home to many of the US capital’s think tanks, defence institutes and lobbyists – than by the State Department.
Sarrej advised by Trump allies
Encouraged by Ankara in April, less than two weeks after the phone conversation between Trump and Haftar, the GNA signed a year-long contract worth more than $1m with Mercury Public Affairs. “A smart decision,” commented Al-Ghwell, adding that the lobbying group improved Turkey’s image with US institutions.
Mercury has proved itself to be active particularly within the US Senate, persuading it to officially condemn Marshal Haftar. In November 2019, senators introduced the Libya Stabilization Act to clarify the United States’ position, thereby supporting a diplomatic resolution to the conflict and tipping the balance in favour of Tripoli’s GNA.
The same proposed legislation, according to Al-Ghwell, provided for sanctions for a number of countries backing Haftar, including the UAE.
Behind Mercury are two Trump loyalists: his former adviser Bryan Lanza, whom the President referred to as a “winner,” and Republican former Senator David Vitter, a key figure in the Russian 2016 presidential election interference affair, who, according to US media, was working for oligarchs close to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
His wife, Wendy Vitter, was nominated by Trump to be a judge of the US District Court in New Orleans just a few months ago.
Besides Mercury, Gotham Government Relations has been tasked with boosting the GNA’s reputation in the US.
The firm is headed by Bradley Gerstman, a millionaire attorney who was the mastermind behind Trump’s presidential campaign in New York. In September 2019, he was paid more than $1m to defend GNA interests at the United Nations. The hireling repeats to anyone who will lend an ear that it is time “to halt all hostilities” in Libya and that Russia and European countries are acting like “hypocrites” since they “continue to arm Khalifa Haftar”.
Benghazi: one step ahead
According to Ghwell, it is thanks to the activism of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Capitol Hill that Haftar is one step ahead of his rivals in Washington.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed , visited Trump in person to convince him to listen to Marshal Haftar. What’s more, the leader of Benghazi is a former CIA confidant who worked with the American intelligence agency for many years.
In Washington, a number of officials maintain that Haftar is also a US citizen and that he gained this status during his nearly 20-year-long period of exile in Virginia in the 1990s. For all that, Trump has never given his fellow citizen key support and seems disinterested in a crisis whose repercussions impact Europe more than the US. Such an ambiguous policy opens the floodgates to “consultant”-backed activism.
After the phone conversation with the US president, the Haftar clan disclosed its ties with Linden Government Solutions, a lobbying firm headed by Stephen Payne and Brian Ettinger, who present themselves as having extensive knowledge of Libya.
Both men, close to former president George W. Bush, travelled to Tripoli in 2011, before Muammar el Gaddafi was overthrown, to persuade him to release three imprisoned journalists and, later on, step down from power.
Payne has boasted about the special relationship he enjoys with Gaddafi’s sons, while his associate, conservative lawyer Brian Ettinger, has ties in the US with the Democratic party. Ettinger used to serve as a legal advisor for former Senator Joe Biden, who today is a candidate in the presidential election against Trump.
How useful that link could be if power were to change hands…
America’s policy of double-dealing
By signing a $2m contract with Haftar in May 2019, the duo, originally from Texas, killed two birds with one stone: they committed to defending Benghazi’s interests within US institutions and, above all, guaranteed the protection of their own oil company, Worldwide Strategic Energy, which still operates in Libya.
However, an article from the New York Times that caused a stir in the United States has put a dent in the international reputation of the champion of Linden Government Solutions.
David Kirkpatrick’s reporting offers an in-depth look at the situation in Benghazi, the heart of the territory held by the Libyan National Army, and describes it as “a police state with an Islamist twist” that has been established in the regions controlled by Haftar’s army and where “an unwieldy authoritarianism that in many ways is both more puritanical and more lawless than Libya was under its last dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi” reigns.
This certainly complicates Payne’s job, without necessarily jeopardising it: in the past, he has been tasked with defending the interests of the government of Turkmenistan, whose reputation for respecting human rights is not exactly spotless.
For Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, a professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, “America’s policy of double-dealing, a muddled policy with disastrous consequences, needs to be changed.”
Evidently, any clarification will be made at the expense of K Street lobbyists, no matter which side of the Libya conflict will ultimately have the advantage.
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