Instead of conceiving Ukraine, Libya or Syria as exotic, faraway conflict zones disconnected from most people’s daily life, what if we looked at them as indicative microcosms of our new historic era – possessing the conceptual keys to unpick the mysteries of Brexit, Trump, and our post-post-Cold War World.
When I went to Tripoli two months ago to co-host a trade mission of American companies, it felt so normal to be back. In fact, all the main business and social dynamics I was experiencing in Libya were echoes of the issues I deal with in my daily life back in London and New York. And since my recent trip, the previously scheduled Libyan presidential elections have been repeatedly delayed with previously rival consultative bodies recently teaming up to side step any potential electoral process by appointing a new prime minister and claiming to focus on the need for a constitutional referendum. Meanwhile, the incumbent prime minister has said he remains the country’s rightful leader and won’t leave office. I wish I could say we live in a world where these antics are shocking behaviors that would occasion a robust international response. But that world has long since passed.
Libya in the 1990s and 2000s was a global outlier, a throwback: high standards of living juxtaposed against rusting infrastructure, all glued together with North Korea-esque leader worship, right smack in the center of the Mediterranean. Paradoxically, my November 2021 trip revealed that Libya, with all its chaos of postponed elections, oil stoppages, militia maneuvering and now rival pseudo-governments, currently occupies a completely altered position in global affairs: a representative microcosm of the current state of geopolitics and possibly an apt warning of things to come.
Touching down at Maitiga Airport (the former American Wheelus Air Base, currently Tripoli’s only functioning airport) early on the morning of Nov. 18 was quite dissimilar to the first time I landed there. Back in October 2008, I was on a private jet with four Harvard and two Oxford grads; they were famous professors and sleek management consultants. All genuinely believed Libya could be a poster child for a neo-liberal economic restructuring.
This time in 2021, after landing long-haul economy from New York via Istanbul, I was subjected to various indignities at immigration because of my American passport and claims that my “airport visa” number had not reached the correct authorities. With the visa fiasco behind me, on the trip into Tripoli early on a Friday morning, the city’s off-white concrete buildings glistened with the reflected sun bouncing off the Mediterranean. I spotted new villas in the residential area of Suq al-Juma. True, downtown was a bit dustier and more run down than I remembered, but things felt remarkably safe. There were relatively few militia checkpoints and almost no notable damage from the 2019-20 attempt by rogue Gen. Khalifa Haftar to invade the capital — it was the southern suburbs, on the other side of the city, that had sustained that carnage.
My first order of business was the American trade mission organized by the indefatigable Debbie Hirst, director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Libya. She had become something of a local legend, known across Tripoli as “Sayyida Debbie”: the blond lady with limited Arabic who continued to drive her own car through militia checkpoints even during the height of Haftar’s assault on Tripoli. Libyans have a deeply ingrained fondness for familiar faces, especially foreigners who stick with Libya through lean years.
Turnout at the subsequent energy conference was robust, with many key oil companies and Libyan government officials in attendance. The current personality politics rending Libya’s oil sector asunder were not mentioned, while COP26 (the most recent U.N. climate change conference) and decarbonization were discussed in nearly every speech. There was a lot of kowtowing to the current slate of Libyan officials, as if they were the permanent stakeholders capable of moving major deals forward, not lame ducks whose mandates were to technically expire in less than a month. It seems everyone knew who would either be remaining in power or attempting to do so.
After the conferences, I found Tripoli eerily bereft of posters for candidates for the slated Dec. 24 elections. With their postponement by either militia violence or legal wrangling always on the cards, locals didn’t treat their promise of a pathway to a non-transitional government seriously. Regardless of education level, if my interlocutors were not in the political/media game, they were not informed about how the runup to the slated election was proceeding.
Yet, despite not following the details, they grasped the essence of Libya’s conundrum quite accurately. A very charming and well-spoken woman wearing a hijab who approached me after my talk at the energy conference explained that she would not be voting because Saif al-Islam Qadhafi was being allowed to run. For her, this showed that the elections were an attempt to drag Libya backward. She grasped that whether they transpired or not, the legal wrangling around the elections was just another political football for incumbent elites to stay in power.
In the evenings, I smoked from a nargileh and played cards with young men in their 20s. After getting to know them, I ventured to bring up the election. They expressed how the candidates were equally corrupt and it didn’t matter who won or if they happened at all. Everyone I spoke with hinted that their lives were simply too busy to follow the complexities in detail and that they distrusted most Libyan TV channels, choosing to get their news mostly from the three F’s: friends, family and Facebook.
Sound familiar? Libya’s yearlong run-up to a supposedly decisive transfer of power via an electoral process contained in microcosm all the core elements of our present global dysfunction. Misinformation was dominant and electoral politics had become completely personalized with no neutral arbiters of the electoral process. In Libya, there are no definitive nonpartisan news sources trusted by all about crucial issues like vaccines, elections or inflation. Just as with America’s recent election cycles, the Libyan election had become a fight over the mechanism of the election rather than the ideas of any of the candidates. Traditional ideological positions about the role of the state no longer matter. Celebrity is everything in garnering a platform. A significant number of Libyans are so turned off that despite having registered to vote and picking up their voter ID cards, they will stay home even if an election ever actually happens.
Almost all coverage of the election inside Libya and in the international arena was about who is running, who will be allowed to stand, if the election will happen or not, and if key players will accept the results or react with violence. As Dec. 24, 2021, approached, international media and Western diplomats reacted with surprise that the elections were going to be postponed at the last minute because of legal wrangling over the process of candidate eligibility, with certain local militias and international actors blamed for playing the role of spoilers. Yet postponement, blurring leadership hierarchies and a million other complexities were the stated intention of most of the status quo Libyan grandees and regional powers who nominally signed up to the electoral process in 2021. They are now behind the current attempts to sidestep any new electoral process from emerging by appointing yet another interim prime minister and claiming to focus on controversial new cabinet appointments, as a fairly transparent ploy to delay elections indefinitely.
Threats to boycott the election, violently protest the results and postpone them with legal and technical objections were always baked into the Libyan electoral process and are completely within current global norms. The recent emergence of a coalition of powerful status quo elites who previously signed pledges to pass an electoral law but who are now willing to throw the electoral process under the bus to stay in power is also not much of a global outlier. Previously never-Trumper Republicans were shockingly fast to toe the line on a range of issues, even including the “big lie” about the 2020 election and the events of Jan. 6.
On other fronts, the inability of the U.N., U.S., EU and U.K. to lead coherently on the Libya file, while tacitly accepting the fait accomplis of Russian and Turkish proxies, is also not particularly novel. From Ukraine to Syria to Yemen, the past decade has seen a trend whereby non-Western powers violate international norms and treaty commitments while Western powers tacitly accept the new facts on the ground that these illegal incursions produce.
So rather than being exotic as it used to be, Libya — with its now serially delayed election, proxy interventions, rival puppet leaders and fragmented institutions — has become completely mundane. Like the ongoing Ukraine crisis or infinite rounds of fallout from Brexit, the latest developments in Libya are reminders of what I call in my book the Global Enduring Disorder.
Another conceptual key to unpicking the current state of geopolitics is the realization that the West’s adversaries do not seek to impose alternative forms of order on Ukraine, Libya, or North Korea. Russia is not necessarily invading Ukraine to install a friendly government or to rig the Libyan elections to make their candidate win. They are primarily opportunistic. If their aims could be acheived without taking Kyiv or installing a puppet government, they would be content to withdraw so long as it strengthens their geostrategic positioning while also disordering global politics, just as they would be happy to support a polarizing candidate like Saif al-Islam Qadhafi in a fashion that causes the Libyan election to be perennially postponed and to keep Libya’s economy from ever being coherently restructured. Both strategies assure that the NATO allies remain constantly caught on their heels, while geopolitical hotspots remain in turmoil. .
Today’s top-tier geostrategic conflicts are no longer proxy wars between the West and Russia. Putin is not trying to impose a coherent solution onto the Ukrainian or Libyan crises. Russia is not strong enough for that. Moscow is more than happy to inject further contagion and leave these hotspots as emitters of disorder. Whether Putin incorporates Ukraine into a new Russian Empire or not and whether or not his preferred candidate ever gets to run in the Libyan elections, he has still outfoxed us all. He has helped bring the disorder of Ukraine and Libya into our financial markets and our electoral systems.