The Biden administration has deemphasized North Africa to the detriment of national interests. China, Russia and even some European nations will be happy to fill the void.
In a nutshell
- U.S. presidents have been reluctant to deeply engage since the Benghazi attacks
- Morocco is a proven partner for the U.S., in contrast to Tunisia and Libya
- Despite its troubles, Tunisia remains important for its Mediterranean Sea location
There are several reasons why it is worth examining Washington’s lackluster engagement in the nations of North Africa. While this region is not the most important to the United States, there are concerns and developments that affect America’s vital interests.
Since the September 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic station in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, presidents have been reluctant to deeply engage in the region. Despite recent developments, President Joe Biden seems intent on a policy of ambivalence. The administration lacks a serious strategy and senior U.S. policymakers are not giving the region enough attention.
Energy and Libya
The most significant regional development is Europe’s dramatic quest to diversify sources of natural gas and oil to reduce dependence on Russia. In July, the Italian government signed a series of agreements with Algeria. Little interest, however, seems to have gone into bringing Libya’s significant production of gas and oil back onto the global market.
The administration of President Donald Trump flirted with the idea of North Africa as an alternate source of energy since Western sanctions reduced imports from Iran. A significant decline in global prices at the time contributed to the U.S. quickly losing interest. Since then, the U.S. has not substantially reengaged, despite renewed interest in alternative energy supply chains in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Democracy and Tunisia
Tunisia, with 12 million people, was once considered the greatest success of the Arab Spring that started in 2010 and toppled authoritarian leaders in the region. The promise of democratization, good governance and political stability made Tunisia a potentially attractive regional security partner for the U.S. Even during the height of the expansion of the Islamic State terrorist organization (also known as ISIS or Daesh) from 2012 to 2018, and despite the large numbers of foreign fighters that ISIS had from Tunisia, the government strived to fight terror and secure its own borders.
The U.S. and Tunisia quickly advanced bilateral relations and strategic dialogue, including a nascent discussion of a trade agreement. More recently, however, political turmoil in Tunisia has grown. As my Heritage Foundation colleague, Stefano Graziosi, recently wrote: “Political tension has run high since last summer, when protests against the Ennahda Movement, the majority party, erupted due to the economic crisis and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Ennahda, at the core of political opposition, is a controversial party, long linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and accused of holding extreme Islamist positions. Meanwhile, government policies are increasingly authoritarian.
Facts & figures
As Heritage Foundation Africa expert Joshua Meservey concluded: The “Tunisian elites have demonstrated that they lack the willpower to undertake the necessary hard reforms. Its aspirations to be a democratic country are now also on hold for who knows how long, given the recent political developments there.”
There are also renewed tensions between Tunisia and Morocco, a critical regional power with 37 million people. Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunis “for consultations” after Tunisian President Kais Saied invited the leader of the Polisario Front, which supports the independence of Western Sahara, to a conference.
China also has a growing and potentially disruptive footprint in Tunisia.
Despite the troubles in Tunisia, the country remains important to the U.S. because of its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea and in North Africa. While poor in resources, Tunisia has a high level of education and advanced digital technology that could potentially deliver a productive and open economy. Private sector-led growth, however, cannot happen without the buy-in of the elites.
The challenge for the U.S. is to help stem democratic backsliding, economic stagnation, and Beijing’s influence. However, Washington is showing little interest in committing to that effort.
Security and Morocco
In contrast to the troubles in Tunisia and Libya, Morocco has been a proven and productive partner for the U.S. It also increasingly engages with Israel. Washington seems content to rely on this relationship to oversee its general situational awareness and engagement in the region.
Recently, the U.S. and Morocco agreed to continue to develop bilateral security cooperation. The engagement is focusing on transnational terrorism, transnational crime and cyber threats. This effort, however, is mostly built on momentum in the relationship built by the previous U.S. administration.
In addition, Israel, the most important strategic U.S. ally in the region, recently signed new partnership agreements with Morocco, an outgrowth of the Abraham Accords, another initiative of the Trump years.
A survey of knowledge professionals in Washington, D.C. familiar with Biden administration policies has failed to uncover any significant shift or initiative forthcoming from the government, despite the region’s challenges.
The most likely situation is that U.S. interests in the region will continue to suffer and that the administration will not make any significant effort to ameliorate them. Specifically, greater expansion of Chinese influence can be expected, commensurate with Beijing’s overall priority of enlarging its footprint on the continent, absent meaningful pushback or competition from the U.S. or Europe.
There appears no obvious end in sight either for the serious security problems in Libya or the state of governance and economic malaise in Tunisia.
Libya continues to be buffeted by both internal conflict and the competing influences of outside powers in Europe, the Middle East and Russia.
While Russia has been distracted by its war against Ukraine, including diverting resources from its shadowy military contractor, the Wagner Group, Russia is keen to continue to exert influence in Libya and the region.
Meanwhile, there seems no prospect for the elite in Tunisia to do anything other than maintain the status quo.
Algeria remains corrupt, oppressive and potentially unstable, though buoyed recently by increased energy sales, particularly to Europe.
All these challenges leave more than enough space for Islamic terrorism and extremism to remain an endemic concern for public safety, security and economic development.
These developments virtually ensure that illegal migration to Western Europe will remain a persisting issue. Since none of these challenges are likely to generate significant security threats to the U.S. or Europe or endanger vital interests, the world can expect only minimal investment from Washington in economic engagement, energy development and security affairs in the region. U.S. attention in North Africa will likely remain focused on Morocco.
Can the U.S. cooperate with North Africa?