Promoting success in the Middle East

One of the few bright spots in Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was the development of a “strategic relationship” with Morocco, a heightened level of cooperation on economic, social and security matters. As U.S. influence in the Middle East diminishes and violence, sectarian strife, economic stagnation and persecution of women and minorities become the tragic reality in most of the region, that relationship increases in value over time. The meeting on Friday between the king of Morocco and President Obama — in a week dominated by abysmal polling, the Obamacare debacle and the demolition of Senate rules  — gave the White House some positive images and material for upbeat statements. The visit suggests the United States may reap as much from the relationship as does Morocco.

President Obama and Moroccan King Mohammed VI at the White House (Evan Vucci/A.P.)

President Obama and Moroccan King Mohammed VI at the White House (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

I spoke by phone Friday afternoon with Salaheddine Mezouar, Morocco’s foreign minister. Speaking in French with the aid of a translator, Mezouar told me, “The purpose of the visit was to chart a new course for our relationship and deepen our relationship.” In the security realm that entails not only “coordination and sharing of intelligence but also promoting economic development so as to promote more stability” in the region. At a time when isolationist voices in the United States are cheering U.S. retrenchment, Mezouar makes the case for a larger U.S. presence. In Libya, for example, he sees the United States as a critical player in helping “the central government assert its authority and fight armed factions.” Morocco, plagued by a violent separatist group the Polisario Front, is pleased the United States supports its autonomy plan for the Western Sahara as “serious, credible and realistic” and instrumental in combating the noxious intersection of terrorism, drug and human trafficking.

Morocco, which is undergoing peaceful transformation under the auspices of a reformist king, recently enacted a new constitution designed to solidify rights of women and minorities, bolster an independent judiciary and devolve power back to local governments. Progress is slow, and recent incidents such as the arrest and trial of a journalist for speaking ill of the king, should dispel the notion that transitioning from a traditional society to a modern, constitutional monarchy will be easy. That said, Morocco is one of the few countries moving steadily and peacefully in the right direction while undergoing rapid economic development. Mezouar told me, “The experience of Morocco as a role model may also serve the U.S. to reach its objectives.” He explained  that “Morocco positions itself as a hub, a gateway to Africa,” and therefore a partner for the U.S. in everything from economic development to infrastructure building to improvement in “human capital.”

It is an interesting proposition, namely that the United States can promote modernization, greater civil liberties and pro-Western sentiments by helping to make Morocco a success story and in turn partnering with Morocco on areas of common interest. If we lack the wherewithal or ability to influence directly war-torn, impoverished and repressive regimes, we can at the least insure that there is a success story for others to emulate.

Morocco’s constitution, for example, guarantees rights of women, who in Morocco, Mezouar pointed out, have a strong presence in government, the business community and among the entrepreneurial class. “The challenge for developing counties, ” he said, “is to make sure the role of women grows stronger. It [happens] through a network of women and NGO’s and institutions.” Likewise Morocco has made a push for education and training with an emphasis on preparation for the workforce. It has thereby been able to make a dent in unemployment (from 15 to 9 percent) and specifically address youth unemployment (down from 18 to 13 percent).

There are, I’d suggest, a few lessons to be learned here that apply to the wider Middle East. First, the U.S. presence is essential and must be sustained over time to have any real impact politically and economically. Second, modernization and democratization are long-term propositions; there are no easy, quick and full-proof fixes for countries with sectarian, political, security, economic and social challenges. Third, if we retrench, we diminish our influence and thereby slow progress of countries on the right track; without success stories the ability to improve the lot of those still mired in violence and poverty diminishes.

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