The United States is short on allies and effective means of influencing events in the Middle East. Syria is still a bloodbath. Libya is threatened by jihadists. Egypt has taken a turn toward dictatorship. Mali is a non-functioning state in which jihadist separatists control much of the country. The “peace process” (for good reason) is going nowhere.
To break up the monotony of bad news, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is no doubt delighted to be hosting Morocco’s Deputy Foreign Minister Youssef Amrani who is in Washington D.C to prepare for Clinton’s upcoming trip to Morocco. Morocco will be chairing the United Nations Security Council in December when all of these issues are likely to be swirling and will be hosting a critical international gathering on Syria.
I spoke with Amrani by phone this morning. If the United States is happy to have pro-American friends in the region, Morocco is obviously delighted to have an elevated relationship, dubbed a “strategic partnership” that launched this fall. Amrani told me: “We have a longstanding relationship. Today we want to upgrade relations and deepen our dialogue. Tomorrow we will have a business conference called by Secretary Clinton.” As part of this and future discussion, Amrani told me, “We would like to include new players — civil society [leaders], business leaders. We want a unique relationship . . . a mode of cooperation, consultation and understanding. We think we can be a model.”
Certainly the region could use a model of gradual evolution toward gender equality, rule of law, human rights and democracy, which in Morocco has been accelerated under King Mohammed VI. And the Obama administration could use some advice and assistance on a range of issues including Syria, Libya and Egypt.
Clinton will visit with the king on December 11 in a meeting expected to touch on Syria, the Palestinians and Mali where jihadists now control the northern part of the country (“It is a situation that is deteriorating,” Amrani said.) Morocco supports a “double track” approach in Mali that includes both political negotiations and “military pressure” on the terror groups. On this one, Armani said, “Africans will take the lead.”
When I ask him about fears that Libya may be headed in the same direction — a weak central government overrun by jihadists. He took the long view. “Transitions in the region — in Tunis, Libya, Egypt — will be long, complicated and will take time.” In Libya as in other countries, Amrani cautioned, there are “no institutions, no civil societies, no political parties.” In perhaps the most memorable comment in our conversation he said simply, “Democracy is culture.”
That sentiment indisputable. Critics of the Obama administration point to the lack of staying power, the failure to work over the long haul on civil society building and inconsistency in opposing autocracy that hinder U.S. influence in the region. Morocco in the past has been hesitant to step forward as a model for the region but with its newly intensified relationship with the United States and the deteriorating situation throughout the region, Morocco is becoming less reticent. Amrani explained, “We can share our modest experience. We need to have success stories . . . otherwise extremists will take the lead.”
On December 12, Clinton will attend the Friends of Syria meeting hosted by Morocco. Approximately 100 international delegations are expected to attend along with representatives of the Syrian opposition. Amrani deflected a question about whether there is room for optimism that Bashar al-Assad will soon be gone. He insisted, “The future of Syria should be democracy or there is no future. . . . There is no other choice.” He didn’t offer a view on whether the Syrian opposition has what it needs to prevail, but said, “We have to support the opposition politically and financially. Through the [United Nations] Security Council and other organizations, we need to put pressure on the regime.” He added, “We should not forget the human dimension.” In addition to some 38,000 dead Syrians, Turkey and other countries now feel pressure from refugees fleeing the violence.
Throughout the interview Amrani reiterated that the United States and Morocco would discuss the peace process and should try to get the parties “back on track.” From the view of many in the United States this seems Pollyannish, especially in light of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to bypass bilateral negotiations and go to the United Nations General Assembly for recognition. Amrani showed his diplomatic skill: “We know that in some countries and the [United] States, some were opposed [to the unilateral declaration]. But we feel a vote could be an opportunity to bring the parties back together.” He affirmed that the goal should be ” two independent states, living side by side with secure frontiers.” While many in the United States see this as a fruitless exercise, Morocco remains convinced that “it is important to give a positive signal,” as Amrani described it.
It is with a measure of frustration that Amrani expressed the plight of moderate Arab countries. “We are fed up with conflict, with crisis. We need peace. Peace can be achieved through political will.”
It is, of course, the $64,000 question whether there is the will for peace in the Palestinian Authority, which has repeatedly walked away from the bargaining table and has abrogated the Oslo Accords in going to the United Nations. That said, even the appearance of progress is better than nothing, one supposes.
Meanwhile, if nothing else, the trip to Morocco should impress upon Clinton that the “Arab Spring” is not a one season episode, but a multi-year and probably multi-decade process in which the United States will have to find ways to maximize its leverage, promote reform, aid in the development of civil institutions and find new allies that can fill the breach while others (such as Egypt) may be in turmoil. For a president that too often has seemed annoyed with national security intrusions into his domestic agenda and has sought to minimize the U.S. role on the world stage, this is an inconvenient reality. Nevertheless, President Obama, Clinton and Clinton’s successor would do well to develop an actual policy for the Middle East that consists of more than simply lurching from one crisis to another. If that realization is driven home on the Morocco trip, then it will be a worthwhile visit for both countries.