Going forward

One of the themes on this blog has been that one cannot look at North Africa strictly through the lens of terrorism or counter terrorism and that a meaningful understanding of the area comes from a broad and deep comprehension of the areas political, social and economic context. The emphasis is on political and social, more than economic. Many intelligent people look at development economic and do work that is more valuable than anything written here about politics or religion or culture. But politics matters too, and not enough is written in English by not enough people about politics in Mauritania or Algeria. So this is a blog about politics, very fundamentally. Any discussion about terrorism/counterterrorism proceeds out of political discussion, as war proceeds from politics.

Amel Boubekeur possibly writes some of the most well informed and conscious analysis of politics in Algeria in the English language today. Always attune to the daily struggle and the calculus of Algerian politics, she summed up the fundamental problem of Algerian politics today for the BBC:

They [the elite] are closing all doors and spaces for peaceful contestation – that’s one of the very worrying consequences of this succession scenario … More and more, I can’t see any other forms of rupture that are not conducted through violence.

James Burnham had it that the first purpose any elite is to preserve (if not expand) its own privilege and power. Studying politics in North Africa supports that view. Looking at American policy in North Africa forces one to think: terrorism cannot come first and that there is a trend going in this direction. There is a need for low profile, low cost and high impact policies that build toward more functional political life in the region; the ultimate success of such efforts is in the hands of the local leadership class alone. But they and their people could use some help.

A Congressional Research Service report on Al-Qaeda affiliates from 5 February concludes its section on AQIM by noting that American policy in the Sahel must evolve to a point where it “strikes an appropriate balance between countering extremism and addressing basic challenges of governance, security, and human development, which some view as contributing to the rise of extremism.” This is the most important question in designing the American policy toward AQIM and other security issues in the Sahel and Maghreb, including drug and human trafficking. The terrorism issue does not stand on its and and cannot be “fixed” or combatted on its own. Perhaps the most intelligent blogger writing about the Sahel in English would seem to share this view.

People live in Mauritania and Algeria and Mali and Tunisia and Niger; and they lived there before there was any such thing as AQIM and they will live there long after AQIM is gone. And there were smugglers, traffickers, bandits and hungry children there before AQIM, too, as we all well know. American involvement there cannot be productive if it is conducted with AQIM or terrorism as its primary concern. It must:

Treat the region and its peoples as a whole: That is, assistance to Mauritania, Mali and Niger should reflect an interest in general human security. That includes humanitarian aid and assistance to law enforcement and military apparatuses. The moves taken against the unemployed Mamadou Tandja were quite reasonable, and so were those imposed on Mauritania during the junta period (August, 2008-2009). The sort of relationship the United States has had with Mauritania since July 2009 has been satisfactory; it has, unfortunately, moved away from the emphasis on civil society capacity building that was emphasized under the previous administration and has been insufficiently timid. Yet one must consider that the American role is deeply limited in the region as a whole. There is an movement towards viewing Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz’s foreign policy in its proper context, to the extent that it reflects his domestic priorities and to which it reflects Iranian and Saudi competition in Africa as a whole. This is potentially positive, as it raises the stakes and may move the policy in general to less meandering one. Yet the history of American diplomacy, depending on how one interprets it, may force a different outcome.

Empower civil society as it engages sitting elites. The current president of Mauritania is, in the field of counterterrorism, incompetent. The desire of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Mamadou Tandja to stay in office on their own terms rather than on the people’s or other elites has been destabilizing. Engaging the Powers That Be does not require offering miserable leaders one’s approval or embrace, and what American moralists have to say on “engagement” in itself ought to be set aside. In the case of all the autocratic or semi-autocratic Maghrebine/Sahel regimes the costs to the average person is minimal if the United States withholds military or administrative assistance, partly because it is so small. That cost rises the more enthusiastic American support for autocrats becomes as it empowers coercive government and the elimination of civil society and discussion. So any support must be semi-conditional and must be designed for the medium-term. The United States must engage, for example, Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz but it is not required to condone everything he does nor is it bound to ignore his aggression against Mauritanian civil society or his criminal neglect in recent times of crisis. His style of rule is increasingly unhealthy and there is a role for those American institutions that work to fortify civil and democratic institutions. In the Algerian case this has been utterly insufficient and the role that American labor used to play in people-to-people exchanges must be increased and so too should exchanges between American Algerian educators and researchers. This has been emphasized by the Obama administration but  its relationship with the Bouteflika government, inherited from previous administrations, risks further undermining valuable opportunities to contribute something positive; and it is true that in any case Algerians will meet these efforts with a degree of suspicion (especially officials); but union men (and women) who have participated in such exchanges have said that these were beneficial to them and would not object to more. And in places like Mali where democratic rule has taken root and Niger where there may be an opportunity to support something that could be to the benefit of American and Nigerien interests such activities are critical. In general, American policy should steer away from helping to shut out alternative voices except in the most dire of circumstances.

Avoid dogma whenever possible. The Obama administration has thus far been able to avoid ideological foreign policy. George Kennan wrote about the danger of legalistic perspectives on international relations. His reservations are valid today. In the case of the recent Nigerien coup, all regional and international institutions rushed to condemn the usurpers. There was hesitation in the State Department’s condemnation; it evolved from what Joshua Keating paraphrased as “he had it coming” into a straightforward condemnation. The question Keating asks — “What’s the U.S. policy on coups d’etat?” — is important on paper. In actuality the logic and context of every coup makes each one different. It is important to support the evolving norms against coups, but it is perhaps more important to make sure that their fallout is not disastrous. So if there is a character undesirable to locals and to Americans (as Tandja was) the demand for a return to constitutional order is the bare minimum; it may be more productive to qualify that with something as in “legitimate constitutional order”. And it may be more clever or more profitable to simply carry on as if nothing had happened, much as the Chinese like to do. Whatever the case, no single rule can be applied across the region; the nature of politics requires that some of what is done be unsavory and undesirable; but only what is necessary and productive ought to be done. And Americans need to expand the scope of what is deemed necessary and worthwhile.

All this comes across as happy, simple and naive; and there are likely not enough resources or will to carry these out completely or effectively and if they are there is little likelihood that opinion makers will pay it much attention. It requires a formation and utilization of interpersonal relationships that American foreign policy is not built well enough to handle. Much of what is written here has or is being done in some limited capacity; if leaders intend to do what they say in a serious way some of it will be underway in coming months in some form or another. There has been talk about “engaging” young people in the region on an economic basis to address chronic unemployment; that cannot be done without addressing corruption and the absence of a strong, independent civil society and responsive government. Superficial engagement will create disillusionment before it creates anything like a new beginning or undermines what Americans and elites see as threats to stable political order.

More to come.


10 thoughts on “Going forward

  1. Thanks for the post. American involvement, sincere as it can be in its intentions, should be carefully conducted in a very conservative way IMO. Mistrust is rampant with Algerians. Throwing weight around can very easily lead to political stigmatisation of “those people who are helped by America”. It can sometimes be a political kiss of death. In the end, lasting good change will only come from within, however long may the wait be.

    BTW, Boubekeur’s quote from the article is a few months old.

    • Completely agree. I am not suggesting throwing around weight here; but take opportunities to contribute something that will assist in long term stability that does not involve arms shipments, “counter-terrorism” operations or supporting dictators and dictators alone. Change can only come from inside any country. Like I said in the post: all this must be high impact and low profile and as non-partisan as possible even if it does have some favoritism (as it inevitably will).

  2. “Always attune to the daily struggle and the calculus of Algerian politics, she summed up the fundamental problem of Algerian politics today for the BBC:”

    Em, I may have miss-parsed “today” to mean the literal today, as in the time stamp of the quote, while you may have meant the political situation these days.

    • If this is true it will be the first instance where AQIM actually is infiltrating local conflicts to any real affect; not how they have been incapable of making anything out of the sectarian violence (Sunni v Shia) in Ghardaia or the like. I am still not convinced that this shows the Polisario shifting or being thoroughly infected by AQIM or its ideas. A member of the Polisario is not Polisario writ large. It surely embarrassing for the Polisario and the Saharawi cause. But since the Moroccans have been predicting this for some time what’s saying their hands are clean? I want to see more information about this guy’s case first and foremost; if there are more Saharawis, we know more about where the struggle is going.

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