Obama's Morocco Opportunity

November 15, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Morocco

Obama's Morocco Opportunity

Next week's visit by the Moroccan king is rife with chances for cooperation.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington on November 22, amid cascading conflict in the Arab world and new challenges in Arab-American relations. The possibility of US-Iranian detente has stirred hopes among many in the West that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff is possible—but Gulf states and others in the region have voiced concerns about the new initiative. The same may be said of Washington’s UN-brokered accord with Moscow and Damascus calling for the peaceful destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons stockpiles: Americans weary of war are relieved by the avoidance of a new military entanglement, whereas the Saudi government has dubbed the agreement “blatantly perfidious”—a sentiment shared by others in the region. Midway into the cloistered US-backed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, fears abound that the process will come to naught and lead to a new Intifada. Meanwhile, Iraqi streets bleed. Tunisians polarize and radicalize. Egypt’s revolution grows militaristic. And recent statements from the White House seem to suggest that the administration would like to pare down its expenditure of attention to the Arab region in order to “pivot” elsewhere, pursuing more challenges and opportunities in other parts of the world.

In this fraught context, the King’s official visit has the potential to serve three important functions: First, the monarch can help President Obama reassure Arab allies about American policy goals and enlist their help in strengthening the effort to achieve them. Second, the two leaders can partner in boosting the likelihood of a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough. Third, the two men can lay the groundwork for a new partnership between the United States and Morocco outside the Arab world—and in doing so, demonstrate that a Washington policy “pivot” need not be a zero-sum game among disparate regions of the world clamoring for American attention.

Prior to his arrival in Washington, the Moroccan monarch visited the United Arab Emirates—together with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, one of the most prominent governments in the region in opposition to Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood expansionism in Arab countries. The king’s relations with the United Arab Emirates are so strong that the mother of the reigning emir of Dubai routinely refers to him as “my son.” There is a comparable degree of deep, visceral connection between King Mohammed VI and the rulers of most of the other Gulf states, as well as the enduring Kingdom of Jordan. Add to these bonds the fact that Morocco is also America’s oldest Arab ally—the first country, indeed, to recognize the United States of America in 1777—and the potential for King Muhammad VI to bridge present gaps between the United States and its longtime Arab partners becomes obvious.

There is, moreover, a firm basis to expect that such an effort would yield results. Arabs favorably disposed to the United States would like to view Obama’s approach to Iran as an attempt at judiciously testing the Tehran regime’s outreach to the international community. Moderate Arab states hope that if Tehran’s proposed negotiations prove deceptive, the White House will expose the regime’s duplicity for what it is, then move to a more confrontational stance with the international credibility of having left no stone unturned. A transparent discussion between President Obama and the Moroccan monarch may be all that is necessary to equip the king with the resolve to urge other Arab leaders to shore up the President’s efforts—diplomatically, politically, economically, and, if appropriate, through heightened intelligence and security cooperation. As to Syria, a frank exchange of views between the two leaders can help determine whether there is sufficient common ground to enable the US and the Gulf states to cooperate more closely on trying to end the conflict. No head of state is better suited to think through such questions with an American president than King Muhammad VI.

As to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Moroccan leader can contribute strategic depth to the American-backed peace effort, thanks to his credibility not only with moderate Arab states but also with each party to the conflict. On the one hand, the King is a trusted friend to the Palestinian people: As head of the pan-Islamic “Al-Quds Committee,” a coalition of Arab and Muslim states, he has been a champion of Palestinians’ social and political rights on their native soil. He has endowed hospitals and other charitable projects in the Palestinian territories, and spoken persuasively in support of the Palestinians in international venues east and west. At the same time, he has also earned the trust of many Jews in Israel and the diaspora: From the days of his grandfather, who saved 265,000 Moroccan Jews from the Nazis; to his late father, who established enduring security cooperation with the Jewish state; to the present time, in which King Muhammad VI has spoken out against Holocaust denial and sponsored interfaith initiatives to bring Jews and Muslims together, Israel and its supporters have come to trust the monarchy.

In a situation in which Israel and its Palestinian neighbors are called upon to take risks for a comprehensive settlement, the king’s involvement will be crucial. He can lobby both sides to make concessions with an intimacy that a foreign superpower cannot. He can lobby the broader Arab world, moreover, to endorse and reinforce the terms of a just settlement. In the region’s unique political environment today, he may even be able to secure new forms of Arab solidarity and support for both parties to the conflict. For example, as a repudiator of Holocaust denial and promoter of Jewish-Muslim understanding, King Mohammed VI is ideally suited to call upon Arab establishments to change the way Arab children learn about Jews and Israel in their schools.

America’s focus in foreign policy deliberations is perpetually divided among disparate regions of the world, in each of which the United States has rivals as well as allies and vital interests to protect. Reports and evidence of a new American “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration have been disconcerting to Arabs who wish to see renewed American engagement in North Africa and the Middle East. But global competition for American attention need not be a zero-sum game—and the American and Moroccan leaderships have a special opportunity to prove as much to the world. This is because President Obama and King Muhammad VI share a set of ideas that transcend the Arab region as it has traditionally been defined.

At a time of global economic malaise and a widening opportunity gap, both national leaders view the southern hemisphere in terms of human and economic development—not just the politics of ethnicity, gender and sect. Looking toward Africa in particular, they recognize that the Saharan desert dividing line between the continent’s “Arab” north and “black” south has lost its meaning, thanks to modern transport and communications that long ago made the border permeable. Today, Saharan sands are a major conduit of north-south traffic—in everything from progressive ideas to extremist ideologies, from prosperous entrepreneurs to terrorists and the weapons they wield.

The two leaders have both expressed the view that countering growing extremism and militancy below the Sahara requires not only hard-nosed security cooperation and counterradicalization but also the creation of economic opportunity. They see in Africa, as well, a growing market of more than 800 million people, and an emerging venue for profitable business and investment. For example, earlier this year, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson offered an appraisal of the economic appeal of Africa: “Seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are located in Africa today,” he noted, “yet not enough American business executives know that if you want to make a good investment today, you should look to the African continent to do so.” As to Morocco, the kingdom has been deeply engaged in Africa below the Sahara for generations. Today, trade between Morocco and its neighbors to the south is poised to eclipse that with the United States, with which Morocco has a free-trade agreement. Moroccan banks are omnipresent in Africa’s center, south, and west, and a new class of Moroccan entrepreneurs are involved in projects ranging from rural electrification to pharmaceuticals manufacturing to textiles. The United States can take advantage of these networks and experiences: Options for cooperation in business and economic development include “triangular programs”—whereby the US leverages Moroccan networks and expertise to provide training or establish a business presence in a third, sub-Saharan country.

Moroccan territory, as well, has become a hub for African military capacity building and counter-radicalization programs. As part of his effort to strengthen the continent’s indigenous military capacity, he has welcomed Malian and West African officers into the Royal Military Academy in the kingdom’s north for training in counterterrorism and asymmetrical warfare. As part of the king’s broader vision for African security, the kingdom is also training five hundred Muslim imams from Mali to preach tolerant Islam as an alternative to extremism in the country’s mosques. The United States can build on these initiatives, using Morocco as a regional security hub to efficiently access both sides of the Sahara.