Obama, the Tightrope Walker
Jeaune Afrique – By Christophe Boisbouvier
27 December 2009
Translated from French
Practical and cautious, the American president is trying not to hurt the feelings of each and everyone, while seeking to protect the interests of all – and those of the United States. Here below is a deciphering of the new White House policy in the region.
The most striking change since Barack Obama came to power is that the United States now considers the Maghreb once again as a political entity. Gone is the Greater Middle East, the vast, heterogeneous bloc into which George W. Bush wanted to bundle some 25 Muslim countries, from Mauritania to Pakistan. As soon as she assumed office, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, proposed a mini-summit to her three counterparts of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The meeting took place on 2 March in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, on the sideline of a meeting on Gaza. "I would like you to cooperate much more on security and economic issues," the American told Mourad Medelci, Taieb Fassi Fihri and Abdelwaheb Abdallah. Today, in Washington, a senior state department official explained: "We are working hard to consolidate our relations with these three countries and to build new relations with Libya."
Is one witnessing the beginning of a great reunion between Washington and Tripoli? That is hardly certain! So far, Barack Obama has done everything to avoid Muammar al-Qadaffi. Admittedly, in July 2008, both men shook hands furtively at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, in Italy. However, in September in New York, at a luncheon with some 20 African heads of state, Obama managed not to invite…the serving chairman of the African Union [AU]. Obama, the champion of a nuclear-free world, truly appreciates that Libya gave up its atomic weapons. However, it clearly does not go as far as dining with the "Guide…"
As a matter of fact, for now, the American president is giving preference to contacts with America’s old friends, beginning with his Tunisian counterpart, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In 2003, it was in Tunis that the Americans set up the regional headquarters of the Middle East Partnership Initiative [MEPI], a vast cooperation plan with the Muslim world. Barack Obama is grateful to the Tunisian regime for opening up to technical cooperation (student exchange programs, training of elite groups, etc). Conversely, he regrets that the regime is not very open to political reforms. On 26 October, the day after President Ben Ali was reelected, the White House spokesperson expressed "concern" at the lack of fairness of the polls. Tunis reacted strongly. Amel Boubekeur, of the American Carnegie research center, offers the following analysis: "Following the 2007 clashes between Salafists and the security forces in the outskirts of Tunis, the Americans fear that Tunisian youths would be radicalized. That explains Obama’s call for greater political opening."
Another great friend of the United States is Morocco. Washington had for long, openly backed Rabat’s policy toward Western Sahara. However, on 4 July, in a letter to the Moroccan king, Barack Obama made an "oversight;" unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, he talked about the Sahara conflict without mentioning the Moroccan plan for the granting of autonomy to the territory, while expressing the hope that a solution that guaranteed "good governance," the rule of law and fair justice would be found. Some observers immediately claimed that there was a shift in American policy in favor of the Polisario Front and Algeria. "According to the Spanish diplomatic service, Obama’s letter meant that he wanted to give the United Nations the opportunity to work without trying to dictate the course it should follow, or to cite the most daring assumption, he was dissociating himself from the Moroccan autonomy plan," wrote the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, on 19 July.
A direct flight from Algiers to New York
On 2 November, Hillary Clinton visited Morocco. It was her first visit to a Maghreb country since she assumed office as American secretary of state. Officially, she was there to participate in a Forum on the future in Marrakech, but it was clear that everyone expected her to take a stance on Western Sahara. At a news conference she granted with Taieb Fassi Fihri, a journalist asked her: "Madam Secretary of State, do you consider the Moroccan plan for autonomy credible and serious?" "Yes, and I think it is important for me to reaffirm here in Morocco that our policy has not changed." Not a word more. Today, our senior State Department official explained to Jeune Afrique: "We are waiting impatiently for discussions between the parties to resume in the presence of the special envoy of the United Nations, Christopher Ross. Several proposals are on the table. One of them is the Moroccan plan for autonomy, which is interesting. However, we are now counting on the leadership role of the United Nations to settle the conflict." That begged the question: "Is that plan better than the others?" And the quick reply was: "It is neither better nor worse; it is a serious proposal that should be treated as such, and which deserves reflection from all the parties."
Softly, softly….In fact, the watchword for the new American policy in the Maghreb is "balance." Long gone is the cold war era when Algeria broke off relations with the "Great Satan," America (1967-1974)….Today, Washington and Algiers are real partners. The first reason for that is oil. Halliburton, BP-Amoco-Arco, Exxon, Amerada Hess, Schlumberger, Anadarko, Burlington…The biggest American companies are partnering with Sonatrach in oil exploration and production as well as oil and gas engineering. This means that the Texas lobby is greatly attached to maintaining the quality of the relationship.
Admittedly, the future of this partnership could be jeopardized by a new law. Since July 2008, the amount of foreign shares in any new investment undertaken in Algeria has been limited to 49 percent of total shares. Meanwhile, in the United States, insurance companies only cover risks of American companies abroad if such companies are the majority shareholders…"To be sure, this supplementary finance law will not help business between our two countries," regrets a member of the Algerian employers’ union. "However, it is expected that the first direct flight between Algiers and New York will be inaugurated in 2010. Thanks to Air Algeria, we can cross the Atlantic without passing through Paris or London. Then, on 23 June, our country will face off with the United States at the soccer world cup. That would be a beautiful opportunity to promote the image of Algeria on American television screens."
In fact, even more than the economy, it was the fight against terrorism that gave a real fillip to relations between Washington and Algiers. To put things simply, since 11 September 2001, Americans have taken Algerians seriously. "Given their experience in counter-terrorism, they shared a great deal with us," explained our diplomatic source at the State Department. "Our relationship with Algeria is one of those on which we are devoting our greatest efforts." To prove the point, on 25 November, the military head of the United States Africa Command [Africom], Gen William E. Ward, was received in Algiers by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Two weeks later, on 8 December, Mourad Medelci met Hillary Clinton and Gen James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, in Washington.
The Americans, in their attempts to deal with the threat of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQMI], are displaying a huge appetite. They are planning to open an FBI branch in Algiers. "I see no problem with that," stated the interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni. However, the Americans are also hoping to obtain some facilities at Tamanrasset airport, in the greater south of Algeria. According to a dependable source, they are asking for authorization to station there some special forces and a latest generation drone unit (unmanned aircraft). On that score, the Algerians are frankly reticent. They would prefer to involve Africom in sting operations, without having them around on a permanent basis. "American support has to be discreet," explains an Algerian officer. "Otherwise, it will strengthen the potential to recruit kamikazes."
So, is realpolitik prompting the Americans to abandon the Moroccans in favor of the Algerians? "Not at all," the diplomatic source hurries to reassure us. "Our policy in the Maghreb is not a zero sum game. What we are doing in Algeria is not at the expense of Morocco. For a number of years now, the Moroccans have made great strides in terms of opening up the political spectrum and liberalizing their economy. That ties in squarely with what we would like to see develop in the entire region."
Hillary, the Moroccan
Obviously, Morocco has long ceased to be the leader of the "free world" in the Maghreb. However, since 2004, the kingdom has been the first country of the region – and the only one so far – to have signed a free trade agreement with the United States. Again, since 2008, it is the first African country that served as a partner of NATO. "For America, Algeria has taken on greater strategic interest since 2001, but Morocco still has considerable assets," analyzes the French researcher, Pierre Vermeren. "Located at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, the future Tangiers deep-sea port, Tangiers-Med, could offer a haven to the ships of the American sixth fleet. One hundred kilometers further south, the Larache listening center is also a precious site for NATO." In short, many Americans consider Morocco an old friend that can be counted upon in all circumstances.
Are the Democrats less "Morocco-philes" than the Republicans? Probably. Ten years ago, a certain Senator John McCain was personally involved in the release of Moroccan military prisoners from Tindouf. In 2005, King Mohamed VI awarded him the title of "Commander of the Alawite ouissam." On the Democrat side, Congressman Donald Payne is a tireless champion of the Polisario Front cause. He regularly organizes press diners with the Saharawi, Mouloud Said, who has been walking the corridors of Capitol Hill for over 10 years. "Mouloud is talented," acknowledges a former American under-secretary of state. "All by himself, he is more effective than all the pro-Moroccan lobbies."
In the past few weeks, the pro-Polisario campaign has been further strengthened by the hunger strike of Aminatou Haidar, a personality who recently received an award in the United States. However, with Hillary Clinton at the State Department, the Moroccans also have a powerful ally in the Democrat camp. The former American First Lady is familiar with Marrakech, which her sister visits regularly. Ever since she assumed office, Morocco is the only country in the region she has visited. The Democrat camp is therefore divided, and Rabat has a solid network in Congress.
Beyond the Democrat-Republican divide, the American administration has several reasons to maintain a "special" relationship with the kingdom. Way back to the reign of Hassan II, Morocco has been one of the rare Arab countries that dialogues with the Jewish state. "We appreciate the fact that this country opens doors with Israel," summarizes our American diplomat. Of course, Washington would be delighted if, nine years after its closure, the Israeli liaison office in Rabat were reopened. However, that is not entirely certain. "Undoubtedly, the king would want something in return," analyzes a Moroccan researcher; the liaison office in exchange for clearer support from Washington for its policy toward Western Sahara.
"Morocco is also a partner whose influence in West Africa, from Mauritania to Guinea through Senegal, is appreciated by the Americans. On 3 August, at the first ministerial meeting of countries bordering the Atlantic held in Rabat, a number of American diplomats were in attendance. "In 2009, we received five delegations from the United States," revealed one of the most senior officials of the Moroccan diplomatic service. "People came from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council, but also, more discreetly, a delegation from Aipac, the famous American Jewish association." As a matter of fact, Americans are always alive to the fact that the Kingdom of Morocco has the biggest Jewish community (some 4,000 persons) of all countries of the region.
"A marriage of mutual interest"
Is Morocco the best ally of the United States in the Arab world? The answer is not so simple. At the beginning of the year, when Barack Obama announced his intention to address the Muslim world from an Arab country, many members of Mohamed VI’s cabinet nursed the hope that he would choose the country of the Moudawana (the personal status code) and of moderate Islam. They even suggested a venue: Fes, the university town which hosts each year a festival of sacred music open to all religions. The rest is history…Egypt was chosen. By way of a minor consolation, on 4 June in Cairo, Obama made the following statement: "I know that Islam has always been part of American history. The first nation that recognized my country was Morocco."