By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
The Donald Trump administration’s aversion to foreign aid threatens US security cooperation with terror-prone Algeria.
The State Department’s budget blueprint for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 cut bilateral assistance to Algeria from $2.4 million to $1.8 million. The request also proposes slashing the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which provides security aid to North Africa, from $12.2 million to $7.9 million.
Algeria’s ambassador to the United States, Madjid Bouguerra, however, remains optimistic that the United States will continue to embrace the need for international counterterrorism cooperation made clear by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The international community woke up to the reality of terrorism [after 9/11] and the need for international cooperation,” Bouguerra told Al-Monitor in a July interview at his office. “And since then [Algeria and the United States] have had a strong cooperation.”
As evidence, Bouguerra cited the annual US-Algeria joint military dialogue that has been in place since 2011 as well as the ministerial-level US-Algeria strategic dialogue that began in 2012.
Algiers has other reasons to remain hopeful. For starters, Congress is resisting Trump’s Middle East aid cuts. And the State Department upgraded Algeria’s standing in its annual Trafficking in Persons report released in June, averting potential restrictions on military and security assistance.
Despite the looming aid cuts, Algeria’s relatively modest lobbying efforts in Washington remain almost entirely focused on a diplomatic dispute with neighboring Morocco. Algeria has long backed the pro-independence Polisario Front in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, and pays the Foley Hoag lobbying firm about $420,000 a year to lobby Congress on the matter.
Algeria’s congressional allies include the current co-chairs of the Congressional Algeria Caucus, Reps. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. Foley Hoag’s most recent available lobbying disclosure forms also indicate that the firm lobbyied former Congressional Western Sahara Caucus co-chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., earlier this year. A Conyers staffer had told al-Monitor that the congressman had planned to renew the caucus, but he resigned from Congress in early December amid a sexual harassment scandal before taking action.
Those efforts seek to offset a much larger lobbying push by Morocco, which has long laid claim to the phosphate-rich Western Sahara. House appropriators have been receptive to that message, unveiling a foreign aid bill this year that once again calls for US assistance to Morocco to also be available in the desert territory despite its disputed status and endorses a negotiated solution “based on a formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.”
The House Appropriations Committee’s nonbinding report accompanying the spending bill goes even further, stating that “the committee also encourages the administration to support private sector investment in the Western Sahara.” That language would advance Moroccan interests, since both Algeria and the Polisario Front oppose private sector investment in the Western Sahara as long as it remains under Moroccan control.
Foley Hoag, however, successfully lobbied the offices of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chair and top Democrat on the Senate appropriations panel responsible for foreign aid, to counter the pro-Morocco language in the House bill. Their panel's annual spending bill released in September includes language requiring the US government to consult with the UN peacekeeping force in the Western Sahara before distributing assistance.
In a further sign of US acquiescence to Rabat’s position, the State Department declined to comment on Morocco’s move to delineate the Western Sahara’s maritime boundaries as its own in July. Even in the absence of condemnation from the Trump administration, however, the Algerian envoy voiced confidence that the international community will not tolerate Morocco’s unilateral move.
“The international legality is very clear,” said Bouguerra. “No one can speak for the borders, be they maritime or land … of the Western Sahara.”
Despite recent setbacks, Algeria has scored some wins on Capitol Hill.
Last year’s House appropriations bill contained language mandating the secretary of State to pressure Algeria to cooperate on a United Nations census of Sahrawi refugee camps on its soil. The provision infuriated Algiers, whose Polisario Front allies accuse Rabat of trying to lowball the number of refugees to undermine the case for a long-delayed referendum on independence.
The language did not survive reconciliation with the Senate and House appropriators did not include the language in the bill they released in July. This year’s bill, however, does call on the secretary of State to “strengthen monitoring of the delivery of humanitarian assistance” to refugees in North Africa, including by establishing registration systems.
“Within the House, there are some friends of Morocco who have tried for some years to promote the views of Morocco,” Bouguerra told Al-Monitor. “Today there is a better understanding within the House and within the Senate that the issue of the Western Sahara is not an issue for the Algerian people, it is an issue of decolonization, which is in the hands of the United Nations.”
Bouguerra also stressed his country’s efforts to diversify trade with the United States following the sharp drop off in US oil imports from Algeria in 2014. Algeria exported $22 billion worth of oil to the United States in 2008 but only $6 billion last year, according to Ismael Chikhoune, the CEO of the nonprofit US-Algeria Business Council. The country boasts the world’s third-largest supply of natural gas and is working to bolster US investments in its energy sector, including wind and solar, as well as in its automotive, tourism and financial services sectors.
Like the Algerian government, the US-Algeria Business Council is working to expand the two countries’ economic engagement beyond energy. Chikhoune noted that while the US-Algeria Business Council consisted mostly of oil and gas companies in 2002, it now includes players in the fields of construction, agriculture, information technology and health care.
“We have succeeded in diversifying and we cover all sectors of trade activities,” Chikhoune told Al-Monitor. “Today we have more than 100 US companies in Algeria.”
Correction: Dec. 19, 2017. This article was updated to correct the spelling of Algerian Ambassador Madjid Bouguerra's name and to clarify the nature of Algeria's dispute with Morocco.
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