Mauritania ranks low on the list of national priorities facing president-elect Obama. The world financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia policy, and other priorities in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere will assert themselves before the president hears anything about Nouakchott or Zouerate. Nevertheless, the time will come when he (or at least those under him) will have to consider the issue. A recent meeting in Washington, among members of the Mauritania scene in the US — former and current desk officers, USAID people, the ambassador, opposition members and the like — met and considered the Bush administration’s policy. The consensus was, from talking to some of those in attendance, was that not much could or is going to change on the US side. Since Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi has been released, amid protests (of suspicious instigation), and the French are now demanding that al-Waghef be released (and the Americans are curiously persisting in the demand that Abdallahi be restored to power), I will not go too far in depth in this post — I will reserve that for another time — and focus on a rough sketch of what I hope the President-elect and his team will keep in mind.
Firstly, it would be best not identify individuals with what really are institutional matters: Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi should not be a poster child for democracy in Mauritania. General Abdel Aziz is at once quite the dictator in the making and quite popular inside the country, and demonizing him will not reverse this. Instead, it is likely to make him more popular. Rather than championing the deposed president, it would be wiser to [quietly] encourage domestic actors to push through constitutional and structural reforms that would isolate the military brass from political activity. For instance, campaign finance laws that limit the contributions military officers can give to individuals and parties, forcing military men to chose between politics and military life, and so on.
At the same time, the US has limited agency on the matter, and there is little to gain in establishing a vested interest in the country in the way some of the Europeans have. Following on this, the American policy should duly keep in mind that as it stands, with the EU or anybody else, the issue is not really about democracy. The French have a hand in the game and are using the EU’s weight to pursue its interests within the military and economic spheres (hence the drooling over Ely Vall and the loathing for Gen. Abdel Aziz). The French role will not change substantially even if it no longer holds the EU presidency. This is in part why the European policy has been so concerned the form of the country’s politics, as opposed to that actual content of its operations. Many of the problems with the EU approach have been not unlike those of the US with respect to erroneous efforts at “democracy promotion” — stressing elections and parliaments without regard to the institutional underpinnings that make these things viable. The interests of other EU countries, notably Spain, will become more apparent and open the door for more pragmatism, but not by much. The French are heavily invested in the country’s very personal politics and are unlikely to press for changes to a system that benefits them and their clients. It is best to try to quietly pursue structural reform with the interested Europeans, rather than loudly echoing calls for unlikely actions.
Secondly, recognize that there are real long term threats to stability in Mauritania that require long term solutions: the Islamist factor, AQIM, rampant poverty and underdevelopment in key infrastructure, etc. With the right working there are traditional societal elements that can manage these problems. For others more assistance is needed, especially as it pertains to border security and infrastructure. Place these issues in the wider context of both the Sahel and the Maghreb and the Arab world. The United States does not have to be directly involved in all of these issues, and it is involved in some of them to boot and these should continue. Poverty alleviation a major one. In another sense, the structural element already mentioned is an important component to the the long term well being of the country as well.
Something that was raised at the DC meeting last week was the context in which Americans look at Mauritania: Think of the country in an Afro-Arab context, with emphasis on the Arab component. Presently, African Affairs is responsible for dealing with Mauritania. While there is a good case to be made for this, the country fits into the Arab political fold in a way that it does not fit into the African one: Applause came from Cairo, Algiers, and Beirut following the 2007 elections, not Abidjan, Lagos, or Dar es-Salam. Further, Mauritanians, for the most part, don’t see their politics in the frame of Africa and operate according to mostly Arab political customs. This is not to say that Mauritania is not an African country or that it does not move within the African sphere — to use a popular model in North African thinking — but rather to simply say that Mauritania would likely be better served by Arabists or North Africanists than Africanists. (Such as they exist in the United States.) This will allow policy to be made with more focus and with the right contextual understanding. Of course, there has to be exchange with those working on the African side, but the locus of understanding needs to be in the North African sphere.
Along with general matters, the lower-level problems — especially slavery, the refugee problem, and the like — can be addressed as they have been, but with fewer illusions. The moves against slavery made under Abdallahi were important, but piecemeal and soft. While it is likely not possible for the United States to press the Mauritanians to change the way society deals with the “vestiges of slavery” (e.g. the way former slaves and their descendants are treated in marriage and employment situations), it can work to help the Mauritanians with legal frameworks by which abolition can be more firmly institutionalized. This is a tough issue on both sides: Recognition of the problem on the American side has been at best on and off and on the Mauritanian side the commitment towards change is tenuous. Abdel Aziz has raised the issue — along with a series of quality of life matters in electorally minded speeches over the last two months, in an attempt to appeal to the poor with whom he is quite popular — and there is no reason that should he become president, the United States should not pressure him to make good on his word with respect to slavery, or the other issues relating to the poor. Poking and prodding on the matter would likely help to move the situation along in the short and medium term, if it is consistent and does come off like badgering (especially given dynamics specific to this administration).