The United States is ramping up security, diplomatic and trade ties with Algeria in a bid for closer cooperation with North Africa's terror bulwark.
The State Department is once again seeking a $2.55 million anti-terrorism package this year while restarting trade and investment talks that had been on hiatus for more than a decade. And US diplomats are lavishing praise on the Saharan giant for its role mediating the crises in Mali and Libya.
"Our political cooperation remains absolutely critical, especially in the face of the growing instability throughout the region," US Secretary of State John Kerry said during the third session of the Strategic Dialogue with Algeria in April. "Here Algeria is playing an important, highly constructive role, and we're grateful for that."
The United States endorsed Algeria's support for a "national unity government" in Libya during the talks, a de facto repudiation of calls by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for an outright defeat of the Islamists who have taken over Tripoli. The remarks are in stark contrast with US officials' private remarks disparaging the fiercely independent nation's go-it-alone attitude during the bloody hostage standoff at the In Amenas gas field two years ago.
Algeria's top lobbying priority, however, has been a flop.
Since 2007, the country has been paying US lobbying firm Foley Hoag $35,000 a month to "promote Algeria's role of peace and cooperation in world and regional affairs." A key element of that campaign is the promotion of "respect for human rights, including the right to self-determination" — code for the stalled United Nations effort to host a referendum in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
The campaign succeeded in birthing a Congressional Algeria Caucus, helmed by Reps. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Sean Duffy, R-Wis., last year. Congress also has a Western Sahara Caucus advocating for self-determination, which was re-established in June by Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Joe Pitts, R-Penn.
Algeria's campaign, however, has proved no match for Morocco's $3 million-a-year lobbying blitz. Increasingly, Congress and the US administration have been shedding all pretense at neutrality in the long-simmering dispute over "Africa's last colony."
Pending foreign aid bills in the House and Senate both call for US aid to Morocco to be spent in the disputed region. The move amounts to a de facto recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over the resource-rich territory.
The change in policy was first introduced into last year’s omnibus spending bill at the behest of House Appropriations member Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a longtime Morocco ally. While still paying lip service to longstanding UN demands for self-determination, the Obama administration is also increasingly siding with Rabat: the US Export-Import Bank approved a $92 million long-term guarantee last year for a Moroccan fertilizer giant that exploits the region’s lucrative phosphate mines.
Morocco's state-owned Office Cherifien des Phosphates has also sought to woo the Clinton Foundation with a $1 million donation to host a Middle East forum in Marrakech earlier this year. The move backfired by raising awareness of Morocco's exploitation of the Western Sahara amid ramped-up criticism of Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
Algeria has also been burned by its support for the Clinton Foundation. Its $500,000 donation for Haiti earthquake relief while Clinton was secretary of state has drawn scrutiny of its troubling human rights record.
The country's democratic shortfalls have also cost support in Congress.
A 2000 law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, prohibits "nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance" to Algeria and other countries deemed to have fallen short of the law's standards without doing enough to improve. Algeria again earned the worst possible rating in the 2015 rankings.
Assistance to Algeria is also restricted by a financial management and budget transparency provision under current spending law, which prohibits direct government-to-government assistance to countries that fail to meet its criteria. The Congressional Research Service notes that US President Barack Obama has waived these restrictions in the past, citing the "national interest."
Despite the room for improvement, bilateral US aid for democracy and governance projects remains nonexistent “mainly due to an extremely restrictive environment that makes such work challenging,” according to an analyis of the State Department's FY 2016 budget request by the Project for Middle East Democracy (POMED). POMED notes, however, that such funding from other US sources is slowly growing as officials seek to avoid getting caught flat-footed by the inevitable transition after the death of ailing strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
“Interestingly, however, the country is increasingly the recipient of small-scale democracy funding from multi-country initiatives,” the report notes. “Although such funding remains quite modest in scope, it has been slowly and steadily increasing, accompanied by clearly increasing interest in … domestic political issues in the country by U.S. policymakers."
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