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The Best Intentions Do Not Always Make Great Policy – Jean R. AbiNader

To Fix Its Middle East Policy, US Must Support Assets while Confronting Challenges

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
April 22, 2016

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

If you think the label “silly season” only describes tsunamis whirling around the national elections, you’re missing an important contest among US think tanks to frame policy options for the next administration. What’s interesting about the exercise is that it doesn’t 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 didn’t pay enough attention to, or ignored at America’s peril. And this is especially clear with countries where our interests diverge, such as China, and more intriguing with those countries where the US has shared interests, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What is also clear from past administrations is that the MENA region 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 the analysis, “Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalize – 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 jeopardizing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That said, whether it’s CNAS, SAIS, CSIS, AEI, CEIP, or any other of the more than 100 foreign policy think tanks in Washington, DC, almost any position on an issue can be found. For example, the recent GCC Heads of State meeting generated pro and anti Saudi Arabia and pro and anti Iran articles, providing support for obviously opposing views, all reflecting someone’s definitions of America’s national interests in the region.

And then there is the question of priorities – when will Morocco, for example, receive the same attention as the UAE or Qatar? All our allies 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 Daesh 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 support America’s interests throughout the region, and for this, Daesh 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 EU and the US 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 bringing chemical weapons into Europe through Morocco. What more can be asked of our ally? If the report is an example, without being more proactive, the US is in danger of a growing breach with our friends.

It is in this context that King Mohammed spoke out at the recent GCC-Morocco Summit about the impact of not respecting old and tested friendships. “There have been new alliances which may lead to disunity and a reshuffling of roles and functions in the region. 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 then went on to detail how Morocco was diversifying its “partnerships at political, strategic and economic levels,” to include Russia, China, and India. He believes that the GCC and Morocco and Jordan “Are facing conspiracies which seek to undermine our collective security. They want to destabilize 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 impactful to think beyond conflicts in the Levant and Gulf to also address threats to America’s 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 metastasize if not confronted with a robust US and EU led strategy in partnership with friends like Morocco.

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