North Africa, the Obama Administration's Policy Orphan?

North Africa is too important to be left exclusively in the hands of security hawks, and excluding the region from Secretary of State Kerry's recent tour and President Obama's upcoming trip represents a missed opportunity.

For his first overseas tour, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accomplished what every Secretary of State hoped to attain during a first trip: Thou shalt neither wreak havoc nor make unwarranted noise.

Even if Secretary Kerry’s tour, a precursor to that of President Obama which begins this week, took in France, Turkey, Germany and Italy, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was studded with symbolic gestures, it followed an accustomed pattern among foreign policy experts in Washington, but one that lacked any sense of a new direction.

The real 'black swamps' that might affect Secretary Kerry’s tenure aren’t taking place in Europe or Turkey. Indeed, the first trips of U.S. Secretaries of State are supposed to set the tone of their global vision, by giving America’s most valuable allies a chance to measure American resolve in leading world affairs. Kerry, from his days as Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is, according to his peers, a worthy man of mediation.

But the outside world is looking for clues pointing to the nature of that policy authority that the White House can, and will, bestow upon him. During Hillary Clinton’s tenure, Washington wonks noticed how the White House kept its Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton under tight control; will this pattern repeat for Kerry?

Despite several significant accomplishments in his first trip, Kerry missed an opportunity to bridge the Middle East, which he visited, with North Africa, which he left out. MENA (Middle East-North Africa), a geopolitical, business and social term that encompasses this compound and interrelated region, was overlooked. His advisors might argue that during his first trip, Kerry had to avoid being helicoptered into the quagmire of Benghazi, the turmoil of Tunisia’s democratization adjustment, or being seen as endorsing the military regime in Algeria, and that he had to refrain from opening a new U.S. front on terrorism in Mali and the Sahel region.

The “business as usual” approach, excluding North Africa, was emphasized by Bill Lawrence, Director of the North Africa Project at International Crisis Group: “I think it is very significant and timely that Kerry visited Europe and the Middle East first, just as it was significant and timely that Secretary Clinton visited Asia first,” adding that “North Africa almost always pays second fiddle to the Middle East in foreign policy.”

Bill Lawrence wished that things, “unlikely to change under the Kerry administration”, would be different in the future, since the Maghreb has “a critical role to play in the formation of the post-Arab Spring environment.” Hence, President Obama needs to adopt a “lateral” paradigm, transcending this conventional hegemonic duality of Middle East/Africa, if he is to curb the numerous criticisms lampooning him for not announcing any new policies engaging Africa.

While we do not seek American interventionism in the region, we would endorse a better, two-track - diplomacy and security - engagement with the MENA region.North Africa is too important to be left exclusively in the hands of security hawks. A stop in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and even Libya, would have cost our sequestered budget taxpayers some additional dollars, but it would have reassured Africans that the land of the brave is interested in keeping them close.

The Obama administration should not leave Libya, even after the U.S. ambassador was brutally murdered; on the contrary, we should show the Libyans, who really knew what a man he was, that America is a nation that never betrays the memory of those who serve it. In Tunisia, where the U.S. Secretary's presence might have attracted protests from the conservative and the liberal camps, we should work with renewed vigor with the Tunisians to secure a better outcome for its revolution, faithful to the legacy of J. Christopher Stevens.

In Morocco, Secretary Kerry could have begun a dialogue with the king, and his politically crippled prime minister, in order for the kingdom to have a peaceful transition to a real constitutional monarchy. Morocco has, thus far, benefited from implementing timid reforms while avoiding the side-effects of full-fledged chaos, but the kingdom is in dire need of long-term solutions rather than quick fixes; Kerry could help steer the political wheels in the right direction. On the Algerian front, the presence of U.S. diplomacy is crucial after Secretary Clinton's visit last fall to Algeria. There is a veritable laundry list of security issues for the Algerian government to implement with regards to the Malian crisis, now without a Western backer, albeit with a messy, undefined French connection.

North Africa has been traditionally a stable region of the Arab world, and its historic ties to the United States run deep. In 1776 the U.S. formally encountered the Barbary States of North Africa, and Morocco was the first country to formally recognize the U.S. as a sovereign country, in December 1777. The region deserves particular attention from both Kerry and Obama, and it would not have hurt to include it in the first trip of the U.S. Secretary of State. It is also true that U.S. engagement cannot take place in a vacuum: These African nations themselves need to carry more of the burden of engagement with the U.S. It is not too hard to point to the nonchalant languor of some politicians in the region, who have been conditioned to wait miraculously for the American golden spoon, waiting for it to make the first engagement move, only to be hard-pressed, by destiny, into their half-opened mouths. The Obama administration should extend its diplomatic arm for a warm handshake, and the onus is on our NorthAfrican counterparts to complete the “Salam.”

If Kerry is aware enough not to make any faux pas in his debut, he should be cautious of the policy and bureaucratic maze that leads to sins of omission. An absence in the North African region, or a total reliance on “corporate warriors” and profiteers there, entails the risk of leaving the terrain open for fanatics of any kind who happen to be active in the region. The flamboyant advent of China in Africa requires America to re-evaluate our Africa policy, loosening the grip on our unilateralist instinct and embracing dialogue and partnership with these states, rather than considering only the immediate-term benefits of cultivating regimes through financial incentives with unenforced strings attached. It is our duty as Americans not to let President Obama’s address on Africa policy in Ghana in 2009 face the same fate as his Cairo speech: Much ado about nothing.

Dr. Abdelilah Bouasria is an adjunct in Arab Studies at the American University in Washington DC and the author of Master and Disciple: Morocco's Authoritarianism or the Other Face of Islam(Authorhouse: 2007) and Mamlakat al Qaht(Nadacom: 2006). He is working on a book on Sufism in Morocco.

Mohamed Abdouh Kabir is a senior foreign policy advisor who received his MA in international policy from the Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University in Washington D.C.

Reuters