Best intentions don’t always yield great policy

Sunday 01/05/2016
King Mohammed VI of Morocco

If you think there are tsunamis of divergent opinions on the national elections, you’re missing a similar contest among US think-tanks to frame policy options for the next administra­tion. What is interesting about the exercise is that it does not matter who wins, since the same realities, domestic and foreign, face whoever is elected.

Options and solutions proposed by think-tanks, in any case, reflect their particular points of view, priorities and insights into what the previous administration has done right or wrong or did not pay enough attention to or ignored at the United States’ peril.

This is especially clear with countries in which our interests diverge, such as China, and more intriguing with those countries in which the United States has shared interests, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What is also clear from past administrations is that MENA is where good intentions regarding countries from Morocco to Iraq often fail to deliver consistently sound and actionable policies.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently launched its foray into this tangle of good intentions with an analysis titled Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalise — A Phased Middle East Strategy for the Next President. It is well-reasoned and documented, enumerates feasible steps and clearly focuses on protecting what remains of America’s alliances in the region without jeopardising its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That said, whether it is CNAS, SAIS, CSIS, AEI, CEIP or any other of the more than 100 foreign policy think-tanks in Washington, almost any position on an issue can be found. For example, the recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit generated pro- and anti-Saudi and pro- and anti-Iran articles, providing support for obviously opposing views, all reflecting someone’s definitions of the United States’ national interests in the region.

And then there is the question of priorities. When will Morocco, for example, receive the same attention as the United Arab Emirates or Qatar? All are allies and have important regional roles to play in promoting stability and security, yet it seems that unless a country or a region is in triage, it has to speak up loudly and visibly to be heard.

Morocco is an excellent case in point. The only mention of Morocco in the CNAS report is as the host for the talks to constitute a government in Libya. Absent from the only map in the report is everything west of the Levant. No mention is made of the growing threats to North Africa, and Morocco in particular, from the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremists nor is there any commentary on the flow of fighters from the region to the Syria-Iraq war zones and back.

Yet Morocco has steadfastly supported the United States’ interests throughout the region and for this ISIS has issued numerous threats against the country. Morocco plays a key role in Jerusalem through King Mohammed VI’s role as head of the Jerusalem Committee. It also has the most robust security service cooperating with the European Union and the United States in combating terrorists who have already caused great damage to Europe’s sense of equanimity and attitudes towards immigrants fleeing combat zones.

Morocco recently became co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the country’s special counterterrorism bureau recently intercepted jihadists intent on moving chemical weapons into Europe through Morocco. What more can be asked of an ally? If the report is an example, without being more proactive, the United States is in danger of a growing breach with its friends.

It is in this context that King Mohammed VI spoke at the GCC summit about the effects of not respecting old and tested friendships. “There have been new alliances that may lead to disunity and a reshuffling of roles and functions in the region,” he said. “In fact, these are attempts to foment strife and create chaos and no country would be spared. It could have serious consequences for the region, even the world at large.”

The king went on to detail how Morocco was diversifying its “partnerships at political, strategic and economic levels” to include Russia, China and India. He said the GCC and Morocco and Jordan “are facing conspiracies that seek to undermine our collective security. They want to destabilise the few countries which have managed to safeguard their security, stability and political systems.”

So when think-tanks look at the MENA region, it may be more effective to think beyond conflicts in the Levant and Gulf to also address threats to the United States’ interests at the other end of the Mediterranean. For example, the CNAS report recommends that, as a first step, the next president make a trip “focused on America’s closest regional partners” starting with the Levant and the Gulf “and possibly Egypt”, clearly aimed at damping down instability in Iraq and Syria.

Yet the conflict and chaos that drive these priorities are inexorably moving across the region and will metastasise if not confronted with a robust US- and EU-led strategy in partnership with friends like Morocco.