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Arab hopes for the next American president

Americans have long assumed that Arab publics, where United States policy is concerned, care mostly about the country’s handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Indeed, they care a great deal about the matter: solidarity with the Palestinians is genuine, and pan-Arab and Islamist ideologues have long placed the conflict with Israel at the center of their agenda. But last year’s revolutions and this year’s struggles for democratic transition show that that other challenges in Arab lands -- and other parts of the Arab world, such as North Africa, where the wave of revolutions began -- are sometimes a more important focus. Since the United States casts a tall shadow in this region, many Arabs -- including me -- have been following the American presidential elections closely. Without presuming to speak for others, I’d like to share what I hope the next presidency will bring for our volatile -- and important -- region.

President Obama has spoken out, over the past year and a half, in support of the idea of Arab democracy. But what is the White House strategy for bolstering the practice of democracy on the ground? 

What is the balance the White House aims to achieve between the rise of Islamist parties which Americans historically opposed and the fostering of democratic values which Americans have always championed? 

I am concerned that many Arabs do not see a sufficiently clear answer to these questions from Washington.

The institutions of civil society and legality that are necessary to guarantee a smooth-running democratic process -- not just now but in an ongoing rotation of power through elections for years to come -- desperately need American support.

Organizations that foster women’s empowerment, labor unions, entrepreneurial training, and education for the rule of law are all vital in this respect. Yet the support America has been providing is relatively limited.

It’s well known in my region that an isolationist streak now runs through both great American political parties, and that among neo-isolationists, attitudes toward foreign aid are lukewarm at best. But “hard power” -- that is, military intervention -- is a great deal more costly. The “soft power” which stands to benefit and stabilize the region has the potential, in the long run, to reduce the need for a giant American military footprint. We hope to see the White House share this point of view, and act on it.

In North Africa in particular, soft power is crucial for countries now in the midst of democratic transitions, like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. But of course this does not mean that “hard power” should be placed off the table. To the contrary, they continue to be vital -- and it’s regrettable that some of America’s “hard power” commitments to North Africa have faltered, the most striking example being Libya.

Vast Libyan stockpiles of chemical and biological as well as conventional weapons are up for grabs. They are falling into the hands of shadowy private militias with ties to international terrorist and criminal groups. NATO -- so critically stocked with American personnel, technology, and expertise -- is the only power capable of disarming these militias. Yet NATO troops have in large part folded into the background, effectively leaving millions of unarmed Libyans to live under the tyranny of chaos.

This month’s elections in Libya, which yielded a victory for a pro-Western party, gives cause for hope. But the security threats to Libya, the region, and the world which the new government must face are formidable. Libyan weapons stockpiles have begun to fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and its allies. Libyan soil is increasingly a crossover point for human trafficking -- i.e., 21st century slavery -- and the global drug trade. 

Thanks in part to this chaotic situation, Salafi extremists managed this summer to gain control of nearby northern Mali and create a new pro-Qaeda enclave. The next White House should not overlook the urgent need to support moderate elements who are struggling against these dangerous trends -- in Libya, and throughout the broader region for which Libyan chaos is a profound threat.

At the same time, North Africa should not be considered solely in terms of the threats that emanate from its soil. North Africa is a region of great opportunity, rich in human talent as well as natural resources including oil, gas, and phosphates. 

Under the Bush administration, the United States signed a free trade agreement with its closest ally in the region, Morocco, which created new jobs in the United States and boosted prosperity in a troubled part of the world. 

The expansion of that free trade agreement to include the whole of North Africa -- including democratizing Tunisia and oil-rich Algeria, for example -- is a worthy and important goal; it could bolster prosperity in North Africa as well as the West at a time of global economic malaise. But bringing the countries of North Africa together in this way would first require a solution to the area’s longest-running conflict: the dispute over a territory in the western part of the Sahara which forms half the map of Morocco.

The Saharan people who live on this territory, historically impoverished, would like greater social and economic opportunity in Morocco. To this end, Moroccan king Muhammad VI has poured billions in investment capital into the area and offered political autonomy to the people who live there. But meanwhile, neighboring Algeria has been backing a militia, known as the Polisario, which aims to conquer this land and turn it into a military dictatorship in the Algerian mold.

Morocco’s support for the people of the Sahara is a key component of any strategy to settle the tensions in the area. The other crucial component is for the United States to apply pressure on Algeria to end the Polisario’s militancy. In addition to their encroachment on Moroccan territory, the Polisario also joined Qaddafi’s army of mercenaries to fight NATO troops last year and have been a source of equipment and expertise for Al Qaeda. Under the Obama administration, support for a solution to the conflict languished. Whoever wins the White House in November would do well to revive peace efforts.

In some ways, to be sure, North Africa’s opportunities and challenges connect with the struggles of Arab peoples further to the east -- in Syria, in Lebanon, and in the Palestinian territories. 

The next American president should do more to support Syrian young people who are struggling to end the tyranny of the Assad regime in their country. 

He should press for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He should cooperate with Israel, the Gulf states, and the moderates of Lebanon to rein in Hezbollah militancy and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But only by looking at the distinctive challenges and opportunities of the Arab region -- country by country and block by block -- can a comprehensive strategy be formed.

It’s a tall order for the next administration. But America’s many friends in the Arab world know that the White House will be up to the challenge.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. An expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and on the board of directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.