With a new tenant in the White House, the American policy toward the Maghreb is likely to undergo some important retooling in 2009. The magnitude of the changes is unclear as the new American administration will probably view the region through old and new lenses.
John McCain, despite his Republican affiliation, and Barack Obama have at least one thing in common. They are diametrally different from the man one of them will eventually replace when it comes to the principles they would use in relations to the Maghreb region. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration’s interest vis-à-vis the Maghreb was essentially two sided. Energy and security took over all past considerations. By focusing on these two issues, the White House decided to forget about what the Americans have done for decades in their foreign policy drive: human rights, democratic reforms and economic progress, areas that are likely to be resuscitated while maintaining the oil and security factors intact.
Although many analysts argued that recent American policy toward the Maghreb was meant to chip away European influence on the region, this assessment is farther from the truth and accepting it would be giving far too much credit for the White House and the State Department. I would argue that an American policy toward the Maghreb simply does not exist. In fact, the declining influence of Europe, although returning with a vengeance more recently, was simply the result of Europeans own disengagement from the Maghreb. The Americans have simply squandered the opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the Europeans as they implemented stringent protectionist and anti-immigration policies.
The American political engagement in the region was rather rhetorical with no real impact whatsoever. During the Clinton administration, the idea of a single and unified trading block within the Maghreb has made some headway. Senior administration officials like Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. Secretary of State for Economic Affairs have driven their initiatives to attempt to convince Maghreb nations to form a viable economic block, and they were equipped with some incentives. With such an economic grouping, the United States could have a much wider influence and could engineer a final divorce between the Maghreb and Europe, in particular France. The American policy included promises of free trade and a defense alliance with closer integration of Maghreb’s military into NATO in exchange for structural reforms that would cement a pro-American regional grouping. Perfect plan in an imperfect world? Except that the Americans did not have the ability to follow through and did not commit the finances, in face of a growing aggressive Europe Union that was quickly anchoring individual Maghreb countries into the EU’s economy. The final stab to the Clinton-era plan was the take over of the White House by the Republicans who had to deal with unprecedented terrorist attacks on their country, with little appetite on the details as the Eizenstat initiative of the late 1990s was replaced with an inefficient American Program for North Africa.
While they made very little progress toward the creation of a unified regional block in the Maghreb, the Americans focused their attention nearly exclusively on petroleum and security. So much so that the old foe Libya became near ally and certainly not a member of the axis of evil. In the oil sector, Algeria and Libya have been the focus on substantial American investment, essentially buying exploration rights and production licenses. In this case, more credit is to be given to the oil corporations with their strong relations with North African governments rather than the Washington bureaucracy. Even the rapprochement with Libya was heavily brokered by the oil lobby, which saw its competitiveness slip away if nothing was done on the political front. Washington’s openness to the Libyan regime was not just driven by well-thought political motives, but pressure from American oil companies was even more important.
On the security front, further rapprochement with Algeria was critical. That country has decades of experience dealing with an insurgency that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The Americans had a direct interest in insuring that some security capability is established in the vast Sahel region. This initiative is essentially one that has come from the Pentagon and not much from the White House or the State Department.
Apart from these two strategic areas of interest, very little has been invested in the region. The exception may be a symbolic free-trade agreement with Morocco, which is providing good opportunities for select Moroccan exports but needs proof of long term sustainability. Political engagement has been reduced to security discussions. Economic engagement has been reduced to exploration acreage and production rights. Educational exchanges have been reduced to their minimum and the movement of people between the two extremely restricted by security fears.
The over simplification of the U.S. engagement in the region over the past eight years is likely to take a shot in the arm with President Bush leaving office. His replacement is expected to have a much more comprehensive foreign policy position that would incorporate classic American diplomatic elements that have been used by U.S. diplomats pre-9/11. Even if the Republican John McCain takes office, he is likely to expand the criteria of foreign relations beyond security and oil. His decades of experience make him a different man than President Bush. His awareness of a wider and more encompassing global environment beyond security and oil will be critical in reshaping a better approach to U.S.- North Africa relations.
Senator Obama’s political positions are likely to also challenge the state of affairs regarding U.S. engagement in the Maghreb. His positions on human rights, democracy, free trade, and others mean that there will not be “business as usual.”
For the North African governments the honeymoon may be over. Not only accountability on human issues, economic reforms and democracy are likely to return to the agenda, but some of the gains, perceived to have been achieved, such as the Morocco-US free trade agreement could be revisited in favor of American workers. Whatever the outcome of the November 2008 American elections, North Africa’s capitals should brace for substantial changes in the way Washington will engage with them in the next decade.