I’ve returned from Morocco after an eye-opening week. (As a reminder, my hotel and airfare were paid by the Moroccan Institute for International Relations.) Here are a few takeaways:
• Hillary Clinton is popular in Morocco. Government officials and civic leaders regard her with great affection because she initiated a strategic dialogue between the two countries and supported an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara put forth by Morocco. Out of the U.S. media limelight, she has impressed people there with her warmth, preparation and genuine interest. She’d do well to show more of that to the American people, many of whom see her as stiff and harsh. Years of combat with Republicans and the media have left her too cautious and uptight, it seems. People abroad see a Clinton who is a much more likable and formidable figure.
• Foreign aid is anything but useless. In the Western Sahara city of Dakhla, I saw the fruits of the Moroccan government’s social welfare and human development push: poor children in a brightly colored, well-equipped and language-intensive school; a women’s cooperative to manufacture and sell camel cheese (don’t laugh — it’s good and nonfat!); a museum highlighting local Berber culture. There is a lot going on there. Congress specifically authorized funds for the administration to use in assisting with these and similar projects and a major initiative to devolve power to the local governments. Nevertheless, the administration has done nothing. Really — how hard is it to allocate monies already in the budget to promote good governance, women’s economic independence and basic education? (The French, by contrast, are visible, having just built a modern, large school in town.) For all the administration’s talk of supporting democracy and human rights, we are doing very little if anything in places where we could make a big difference.
• The need for nonmonetary assistance is great. Americans who think developing countries only want their money may not understand the needs of countries trying to work toward political and economic reform. Government officials, local business people and civic representatives made clear that in a country like Morocco the most acute needs include training in public administration, finance, entrepreneurship and government reform. Countries undergoing radical change under difficult circumstances — in Northern Africa, South and Central America and around the world — are going to have a very hard time staying ahead of social unrest, economic strain and political dysfunction unless they get help. (The Europeans, in some instances, are doing more than the United States.) This is a lost opportunity for the United States and an invitation for powers that don’t share our values to make trouble.
• Africa is not an undifferentiated basket case. Moroccans are engaged in trade, investment, religious training and political cooperation with nations to the south. They see potential and are behaving proactively to ensure their neighbors do not become unstable or radicalized. Where is the U.S. policy for the Middle East or Africa along the same lines? Our African policy seems to consist of having diplomatic meetings (President Obama may be going there in the fall), which have zero impact on the well-being of ordinary people.
• We should do more to hold bad actors accountable and exact a price for human rights abuses. Morocco is in a bad neighborhood to be sure. North Africa and the rest of the region must cope with an unstable government in Mauritania, chaos in Libya, brutal internal repression in Algeria (and horrendous abuse of Sahrawis kept in camps in Tindouf, Algeria, in violation of international refugee pacts), and a Nasser-like regime in Egypt. Too little is said publicly and too much destructive conduct goes unremarked upon. The administration told us that participation in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, for example, would enable the United States to influence debate and pressure human rights abusers. But there is little evidence we use that or any other forum to pressure abusive regimes. Why isn’t the United States insisting U.N. representatives have access to the people in camps inside Algeria? Why isn’t the United States giving voice to secular, pro-democratic leaders in Egypt trying to find a foothold in civil society? Perhaps it’s sloth or indifference, or maybe the administration’s huge messes have sapped energy for painstaking defense of repressed and abused peoples.
There are many intractable problems around the world (e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) that hold little hope of positive resolution anytime soon. Maybe — when all else fails — instead of expending political capital and time on the useless activities the administration can start figuring out the places around the globe where it is relatively easy to promote human rights and government reform, thereby diminishing the opportunities for mischief and unrest. That will take an administration and Congress willing to make the case for U.S. involvement and to bat down phony excuses for doing nothing. I hold out little hope for the current administration, but in the 2016 election a robust debate about what a successful, engaged foreign policy would look like would be welcomed.