Mauritania and American priorities

Picture 2Many members of the Mauritanian opposition  and operatives clamor that the American position towards the new government is among the most crucial of those yet out: the French, Spanish, Moroccan, and most other responses were predictable. The Americans, having somewhat less at stake, could go in any direction. The American Embassy in Nouakchott released a statement “taking note” of the Constitutional Council’s decision to recognize Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as the winner of the 18 July election, and mentioning the Dakar Agreement as having brought the country back to a “national consensus on the return to constitutional order”. Mauritanians in the opposition are reading it carefully, even if it is not exactly what they had hoped to read. At one level there is an over estimation both of American capacity to carry on with the rejectionist line as European, Arab and other allies have chosen to move on. At another, there is also a similar overestimation of the relevance of the American position and to a lesser extent of the American desire to have any particular involvement in Mauritanian domestic politics. But to whatever extent the American position has been over estimated, misrepresented, misinterpreted or whatever else, it remains the case that for nearly a year, the Mauritanian opposition in general saw themselves as being in some form of common cause with the United States.

The American position, previously characterized by a distaste for now-president-elect Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is now less aggressive, with the United States having recognized his victory and sent representatives to meet him, along with a flurry of other European, Arab and African diplomats. The American policy, pre-election, had been the most consistent and straightforward of the Western powers when it came to Mauritania. It was built in no small part on the African Union’s rejection of the 8 August coup almost to the letter. It was easy to maintain because the United States, unlike France or Spain or any of the others, has few deep economic ties to Mauritania. What political and military ties exist are minimal to boot, though the trend is toward expansion. It is not bound by a need for fish, or iron or much of anything else. But because it is the American position it holds a certain weight and credibility that the positions of other Great Powers do not. During the post-coup period, Mauritanian opposition members often remarked and believed that:

  1. the “Americans” were “the only ones [we] could count on” to provide consistent moral and institutional support internationally;
  2. that, as a result of this, the international rejectionist position, in favor of the “restoration of constitutional order” and/or the deposed president Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi’s return to office, was strengthened and legitimized by that support;
  3. that American rejectionism helped to push Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz into a more radical foreign policy, thereby alienating him in polite circles abroad, bolstering their case against him and;
  4. that if the American position were to become accommodationist or to compromise, their efforts would face significantly greater hurdles at home and abroad; e.g., that the American position was an important contributing factor in staving off what could have been a more brutal “transitional” period under the junta.

The American position was shaped in not insignificantly by that country’s traditional idealism, shaped in this case by the story of its transformation from dictatorship to democracy in 2005 and by Mauritania’s own relative insignificance in American grand strategy. There were private and institutional observers from the US at the 2007 elections; there were many who believed that Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi really was a political figure of some worth, weight and significance. It was also shaped by an understanding that the United States’s ability to shape affairs in Mauritania is greatly limited; it could suspend aid or withdraw its ambassador, but the functional meaning of this was limited. In the Mauritanian case, America’s power was more symbolic than anything else, an iteration of soft power. It should be noted that this was in an overwhelmingly Arab polity during the time of George Bush and Barack Obama. Where has this policy left Mauritania in terms of the United States for the moment?

  • It has created a situation where the junta was forced, by way of international isolation, to adopt the line of Libya and Iran. Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz broke Mauritania’s ten-year-old diplomatic ties with Israel, in exchange for money and backing from Libya (then at the head of the African Union, balking in the face of several months worth of AU policy) and Iran. This was a red-line in US-Mauritanian relations. The relationship between Mauritania and Israel was in part the result of Clinton administration policy and US tolerance for the pre-2005 regime was in large a result of it. The break was entirely and utterly political, though, and has little connection to anti-Israel ideology per se and everything to do with what was then Mauritania’s geopolitical circumstance. As isolation and sanctions pull back, expect the Mauritanians to curry the favor of the United States and the “moderate” Arabs, who are already coming round to the new government, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait having sent their salutations to Gen. Abdel Aziz. The General may even seek to re-establish diplomatic ties with Israel towards this end.
  • The American position, by just about every account from the upper ranks of the Ould Daddah and Boulkheir camps, gave the Mauritanian opposition a tremendous boost in morale. If the perception of US backing dissipates, in combination with other factors, the opposition could fragment, with factions drifting towards the new government or into other directions. The 18 July elections have left many, many opposition supporters and officials not just angry, but embittered. Mauritanians have taken to the streets asking “Ayna sawti?” (“Where is my voice/vote?”), deliberately copying the [failed] Iranian model with an eye to attracting international (specifically, American) attention. Many still believe that the US will continue its anti-Aziz policy. The protest efforts are evidence that many worry that Ould Abdel Aziz is laying the ground work for a despotism all his own. Mauritanians in the opposition appear to worry that international acceptance of this development will make their jobs more difficult: for them, the tone of the American position and attitude towards the new government will be a partial barometer to what extent their continued opposition will be tolerated. Hence the attempt to capture western attention and sentiment by casting an analogy between themselves and the Iranians struggling against their “stolen” election (the circumstances around that on going debacle are of little interest here; the imperfect analogy clearly irritates some, and not without good reason; this might help point in the direction of Saudi Arabia, as well.). In any case, prominent and wealthy supporters of the opposition are already facing the new government’s wrath, with their business operation being disrupted and spoiled.
  • In either circumstance the foundations for two sorts of rule are being laid: (1) a new, long term, despotism not much different from that of the Ould Taya period, with its early years dominated by the consolidation of authority by Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz; or/and, (2) a series of efforts towards such a new regime, but interrupted, disrupted or punctuated by various forms of rejectionism and/or resistance by tribal and political elements. The possibility of violence is low; the possibility that Ould Abdel Aziz will not finish his term is within the realm of possibility. If he does not over step his bounds in consolidating his leadership — he has said that he is not interested in a “unity government” — he may avoid creating the sense that he seeks to fundamentally or crucially alter the status quo for the elite and thus be able to sidestep the rumors and fears being spread by some in the opposition that purges are being planned. Here is where some Mauritanians like to say that the Europeans either do not understand or do not care that the results of 18 June “have consequences”. It is likely that the Europeans and most others fully ascertain this, and would prefer a “stable” circumstance to the relative political chaos that has characterized the last five years. Whether or not these actors care about how miserable or how happily Mauritania’s domestic politics turn out, given that iron ore and fish exports keep up, is quite another story.
  • Needless to say, at a certain level, American interest in North Africa, at the moment, proceeds primarily from anxiety over AQIM. Though there was an attempt by some in Washington to reorient the American focus on the region towards a more “economic” vantage point (which was intended to give credibility and prestige to Moroccan policy in the region; at this point it would seem that this view was seen for what is was and rightly and wisely ignored or put to the side). Going forward, an American policy must consider that if al-Qaeda (AQIM) is any real threat to regional security, beyond providing material for half-informed op-eds, Mauritania is the state most at risk for serious destabilization. Whether Ould Abdel Aziz is qualified enough to weather such a challenge deserves some discussion and some debate. It is known that Ould Abdel Aziz is the sort of leader who surrounds himself with those who sing his favorite songs, without asking the hard questions or presenting the most important criticisms. It is said that he is abrasive, and even abusive, towards his inner circle. Here is the personality that dictates one man rule; and it is questionable that such leadership is capable of dealing with a threat like AQIM (or dissent generally) in a sensible and rational way.
  • At the same time, there are rumors, or at least impressions, among the opposition and some others that the Europeans will not be sending any money to the new government until the domestic political sitution is resolved. The junta is strapped for cash: a sitin was staged in the Education Ministry, as employees had not been paid for several weeks; the Ministry for Rural Development (the largest and most important part of the budget) is also searching for funds. If this is true, it may be evidence of better sense among the Europeans and a possible opening for a continuity of policy on the American end.

If the Obama administration discontinues the previous policy it risks alienating the good will won since 8 August of last year. That good will was won with minimal effort on America’s part. The hard part for the United States is deciding how to prioritize Mauritania, assessing the potential stability, longevity and desirability of the order General Ould Abdel Aziz is setting up, and determining whether or not maintaining the basic skepticism and steadfastness of the last year is worth whatever acrimony or annoyance might rise up from its allies more vested in the situation (e.g. France, Spain and Morocco).

In Washington, there is a disconnect between the bureaucrats  and political appointees as to the importance of Mauritania and the context within which it should be viewed and treated. Not enough time has elapsed under president Obama’s administration for anything of substance to have trickled upwards or downwards, but the administration’s image — in Mauritania and perhaps elsewhere — would be better served by continuity with the Bush policy. A tough line on Ould Abdel Aziz, on human rights, even on any potential attempt at reversing his Israel policy (it could provide for an opportunity to boost Obama’s standing within the pro-Israel crowd in the US, and to balance recent Saudi rejectionism), would do less harm to American interests than would mimicry of the current European position. The Americans seem to recognize this, but the attitude at the top remains one of “have a civil war, then come see us”; further down on the totem pole things are more intelligent. But this is almost always the case.

Whichever direction the United States takes its Mauritania policy, such as it may be said to exist, the results will be more greatly felt in Nouakchott than Washington.


7 thoughts on “Mauritania and American priorities

  1. Very good post, but I don’t have to tell you that. I have one question. You write:

    A tough line on Ould Abdel Aziz, on human rights, even on any potential attempt at reversing his Israel policy (it could provide for an opportunity to boost Obama’s standing within the pro-Israel crowd in the US, and to balance recent Saudi rejectionism)“…

    What do you mean here, with regard Israel? That the US should or shouldn’t pressure (hard) for a reestablishment of relations with Israel? I’m assuming the latter.

    I can definitely see why it’s a US policy goal, but I think it would be a grave mistake to spend much political capital either way, at this point. What little Mauritania policy exists needs to be independent from internal US calculations, and this is purely an American concern: an Israeli embassy in Nouakchott has near zero practical importance in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, the debate around those ties were and are seriously disruptive to Mauritanian politics. Formerly only in feeding Islamism and opposition, but now also because Abdelaziz is trying to sucker Washington into playing for this little Potemkin embassy rather than for significant political goals. I hope and think not, but I wouldn’t be much surprised if they take the bait.

    • In terms of Obama’s Israel policy, there is a domestic perception that he is soft on “the Arabs” and hard on Israel. He is rapidly becoming seen as anti-Israel by both American Jews and Israelis. The expulsion of the Israeli Embassy irritated a good number of interested American Jews (who had invested in a hospital, about 5 million dollars, which was shut down and put under Iranian direction, though it is said the Iranians have done nothing with it). From the domestic standpoint many people think his attempt to push Israel toward moderation and his overtures to the Arab parties are not working. From that standpoint, I think there is a good domestic argument for pushing for them to re-establish ties; again this is from the purely self-interested vantage point.

      On the other end, not pushing for re-establishment deprives Aziz of his playing card and it is consistent with American policy already in regards to the Arab-Israeli dispute thus far, or at least the way some Americans and Israelis seem to perceive it. From the standpoint of the American self interest, it is smarter to pursue that line. You are correct; the credibility of the American position comes from that it is not so heavily invested in domestic politics, lobbies and so on. The point of that line was to extrapolate as to how Mauritania might fit into American policy more generally, not so much to say that it should be attached to the Israeli issue or that it was a major component on the Arab Israeli front; but how could it be sold to higher ups.

      A question for you, alle: will Swedish leadership at the EU level have any influence on the European position, generally?

  2. On Mauritania? No, can’t imagine it will. Sweden hardly has a MENA policy, much less a Mauritania policy. There’s not even an embassy in the country, and, to the best of my knowledge, Mauritania doesn’t have one in Stockholm either.

    Also, one should realize that the chairmanship is not a powerful position, it’s mostly about getting 15 mins of figurehead fame. The common agenda is set by inter-state compromise, and then largely ignored by those who have a serious interest in the situation.

    In a major media moment the chairman nation is of course able to tweak public perception of whatever the common position might be, by issuing private statements, taking interviews, and so on. You may remember the strongly pro-Israeli Czech statements during the Gaza war, although they were really out of line. Sweden tends to be more cautious, although present FM Carl Bildt is a pretty headstrong figure, so you never know. If there’s another coup, maybe they’ll seize the moment, but now that it’s business as usual after the elections, I really don’t think so.

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