ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Libya is sliding toward civil war. Troops from the east of the country are advancing on the capital, Tripoli. Their leader is a general named Khalifa Haftar. Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has interviewed General Haftar and spent a lot of time reporting in Libya. And before we dig into what's happening at this moment, he's going to help us walk through how Libya came to this precarious juncture.

Frederic Wehrey, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FREDERIC WEHREY: It's great to be here. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to start in 2011. Protests are sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. It's described as the Arab Spring. What's Libya's role in this?

WEHREY: Well, Libya very quickly joined the Arab Spring. There were initially peaceful protests against Gadhafi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
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WEHREY: They quickly spiraled into an armed revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEAPON FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

(SOUNDBITE OF WEAPON FIRING)

WEHREY: This dragged on for several months.

SHAPIRO: Moammar Gadhafi had been the dictator in charge of Libya for many, many years. And later that year, 2011, what happens to him?

WEHREY: He's overthrown. He's executed by rebels, who drag him out of a ditch.

SHAPIRO: And that was actually caught on video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: What's the role of NATO, Western troops, in all of this?

WEHREY: NATO was decisive. NATO applied airpower to help the rebels on the ground, ostensibly to protect civilians. But the NATO intervention was crucial to the toppling of Gadhafi. And the big mistake was that NATO - and the United States - did not follow through after the overthrow.

SHAPIRO: You're not the only one calling it a big mistake. After President Obama left office in 2016, he told Fox News that this was probably his biggest mistake as president.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

BARACK OBAMA: Probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.

SHAPIRO: The day after resulted in pretty much a split country.

WEHREY: Absolutely - because Gadhafi really didn't leave any structure for governing. And so Libya - you know, fragmented militias filled the vacuum. And by 2014, absolutely, you had this split between east and west.

SHAPIRO: As this was playing out, I'm sure many listeners will also remember the 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the death of a U.S. ambassador and a political feeding frenzy in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, on...

HILLARY CLINTON: What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

MARK GEIST: Hillary as president - no thanks. I served in Benghazi.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You can never forget about Benghazi - ever.

WEHREY: The great tragedy of that is that it really resulted in the retreat of the United States. As Libya became such a political football, the U.S. really disengaged.

SHAPIRO: So this brings us to the present day. Libya has been a country divided, with a government in the West backed by the United Nations and a government in the east backed by Russia and others. It's been this uneasy stalemate for a long time. And now this man, General Haftar, begins an advance on Tripoli. He's got a really interesting background. Tell us a little bit about him. He lived for 20 years in Virginia, was trained by the CIA.

WEHREY: It's quite a story. It's both epic and tragic. He was one of Gadhafi's allies, co-conspirators when Gadhafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969. He broke with the dictator during this disastrous war in Chad. He briefly was trained by the CIA. Then, he fled and settled in Virginia for two decades.

And then, in the twilight of his life, with the 2011 revolution against Gadhafi, he senses an opening for a comeback. He comes back to Libya, tries to lead the revolution and is shunted aside by the rebels. And then he gets another chance in 2014, and he launches this campaign that splits the country into two. He spends many years consolidating his control in the east, and now he's moved on the capital.

SHAPIRO: You've sat down and talked with him. What's he like personally?

WEHREY: He's deeply ambitious, convinced of his role in the country. He's an old-school military man, I think - an authoritarian by temperament. You look at his ornate uniforms full of colorful medals, and you see that he's sort of a throwback to a different era. He has a real disinterest in electoral politics.

SHAPIRO: He doesn't want to be elected in a popular vote is what you're saying (laughter).

WEHREY: I think so. And I asked him once about the constitutional drafting process, and he dismissed it as empty talk. So he really puts the military on a pedestal. He sees the military as sort of the national savior for the country.

SHAPIRO: He has several countries backing him - the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia. The position of the U.S. in all of this is unclear. Where does the Trump administration stand?

WEHREY: It's ambivalent. Technically, the United States is backing his rival, which is this internationally recognized government in Tripoli. But ever since Haftar came on the scene, he has enjoyed support from parts of the U.S. government who see that, yes, in fact, he is going after terrorists.

The United States State Department and others very recently, in this last assault, have come out strongly against this attack, obviously for its humanitarian consequences. But it's also sending the price of global oil prices skyrocketing.

SHAPIRO: Do you think he could succeed at ousting the government in Tripoli and taking over the country?

WEHREY: Right now he's clearly encountered more resistance than he anticipated. His campaign is stalled. There's issues of logistics, and he can't apply the same kind of airpower in the Tripoli landscape that he did in the eastern part. But I think we're in for a very protracted campaign and perhaps a stalemate.

SHAPIRO: How worried are you that Libya could explode in an all-out civil war?

WEHREY: I'm very worried. There's obviously questions about how much outside states get involved. In the past, during his other campaigns, the United Arab Emirates conducted airstrikes. The French were helping him on the ground with intelligence personnel. So I think the outside support is going to be crucial. But I think we're really at a risk of a national conflict.

SHAPIRO: Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks for walking us through this today.

WEHREY: My pleasure. Thank you.

This interview was originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.