The United States has been present in the western Mediterranean for two and a quarter centuries, a presence that stretches back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when following its first clashes with the Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, the young American Republic despatched a U.S. naval squadron to the Mediterranean in 1801.
The first aim of this work was to revisit the historical context of that American presence in the western Mediterranean focusing on the interaction between the United States and the four North African states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya from 1785, which opened the eventful chapter of the young American nation’s entanglements with the Regency of Algiers up to the opening decade of the twenty-first century.
This longstanding engagement of the United States in the western Mediterranean went through different phases, fashioned or dictated predominantly by the U.S. foreign policy priorities and matters of national security concern.
In retrospect, seven important moments appear to stand out in the relationship which developed over that time span between the U.S. and the Maghreb (1).
1. The Barbary episode presented the newly-formed American nation with its first crisis in the western Mediterranean. It was to take thirty years to be resolved and became a major national issue for the first four presidents of the United States. Ultimately, the crisis led to the creation of the U.S. Navy in 1794, marking the emergence of the United States as one of the major naval powers in the Mediterranean.
As America’s first expeditions on foreign grounds, the Barbary Wars (2), as they were referred to, figured prominently in the works of the very first American poets and playwrights; these were to play a crucial role in forging a sense of national identity in the nascent American nation.
2. There followed a long interval of one and a quarter century when the American presence in the Mediterranean was episodic, as the United States tried, in accordance with the Monroe doctrine, not to get involved in European affairs except on two occasions: first in the Perdicaris incident in 1904, and again in the Algeciras Conference in 1906, which brought the United States to mediate in the dispute between France, Germany, and Spain over their claims for territories and commercial privileges in Morocco.
Concurrently, the later nineteenth century was marked by a considerable interest in the “Orient”, a term which referred to those easily accessible but still exotic lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and which included the Levant and North Africa. The observations of those American artists who engaged with the Mediterranean “Orient” and rendered it in paint, led to an exceptional collection of documents on a world relatively unscathed by European colonial encroachment. That artistic legacy has yet to be rediscovered and recognized as an invaluable part of the Maghreb’s cultural heritage.
3. The Anglo-American landing on North African shores in November 1942 saw a return of the United States naval forces to the western Mediterranean after the long isolationist period, thus marking the ascendancy of the U.S. presence in a region considered, until then, to be off the bounds of American concern. The Allied landing had an important effect on the Maghreb, then under colonial rule. Indigenous troops were recruited to fight along side the Allies in Europe. At the end of the war, the returning soldiers found that they had fought to liberate occupied France but, as colonial subjects, they discovered that they were still discriminated against in their native counties. Furthermore, these returning veterans were also aware of the declaration of the Allied “Atlantic Charter” whose messages had helped reinforce the Maghrebi nationalists’ demands for political freedom and end of colonial rule.
However, by 1946 the Rooseveltian flame of anti-colonialism had all but died out; the principles proclaimed in the Atlantic Charter -- notably self-determination and freely elected government -- faded as containment of communism supervened, taking precedence over all other considerations in American foreign policy.
4. The decolonization of French North Africa in the 1950’s and the perplexing problems it posed, faced the United States with a dilemma. The onset of the Cold War, the importance of France as a major NATO ally, and the necessity for the United States to preserve its strategic bases on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, limited considerably the American scope of action with regard to the nationalists’ pressing demands for independence. As a result, in taking an equivocal stance on the issue, the Americans only managed to frustrate both their French colonial ally and the Maghrebi nationalists.
Special correspondents of leading American magazines and newspapers covered the different phases of the decolonizing process in North Africa. Their reports were actually to prove essential in giving it international exposure.
On a different level, Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived most of his life in Tangier and who travelled in Algeria, lent a voice, in his novels and short stories, to some of the collateral victims of the violent struggles which marked the decolonization phase in these two North African countries.
5. The post-independence, nation-building phase from the early 1960s to the late 1980’s inaugurated an era of active American involvement in the Maghreb which has continued to this day. In the first two decades of that period, U.S. interests in the western Mediterranean remained strongly tied to the East-West block divisions. The 1960s and 1970s were also marked by American interventions in the Third World which affected the U.S. relations with the Maghrebi states, notably Algeria. These two decades saw the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam (1961); the operations against Cuba; the direct military intervention in the Dominican Republic (1965); the covert operations against the elected Allende regime in Chili (1970); the interventions by proxy in Angola where the U.S. supported UNITA rebels against the Marxist MPLA government (1975).
In these heydays of Third Worldism and national revolutionary movements, roughly between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, Algiers became the rallying point of all the “freedom fighters” of the world, including militants of the American Black Panther Party.
6. With the end of the Cold War and the advent of economic liberalism, socialist Third Worldism entered a period of dramatic decline. Marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the East-West confrontation, the late 1980s-early 1990s saw the rise of Islamist activism which affected the Maghreb and the Arab-Muslim world at large, confronting the United States with the unfamiliar phenomenon of Islamist terrorism which culminated in the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
In the prevailing climate of violence which characterized the Algerian political scene in the 1990s decade, much attention was directed toward the phenomenon of the rise of Islamist extremism and its violent outcomes. Scores of books and articles by American scholars and political analysts addressed the contentious issue, and the challenges it represented for U.S. interests, not only in the Maghreb, but in the larger Middle Eastern region.
7. The U.S. “War on Terror” saw a scaling up of the American involvement in the Maghreb. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared the strikes to be “acts of war”, thus signalling that “War on Terror” was not a mere rhetorical figure but an assertion by the chief of the U.S. Forces that countering terrorism had become the national security priority of the United States. The post-9/11 period saw a reinforcement of U.S. presence in the region, marked notably by a significant development of military and security cooperation between the United States and the four North African countries.
Later, President George W. Bush declared that the democratization of the larger Middle East was to be a U.S. policy priority of his second administration. The directing principle of this policy line was that greater political, economic and social reforms in the Arab Middle East were essential to undercut the forces of Islamist extremism in the region. In fact, the U.S. “Broader Middle East and North Africa” initiative never got off the ground. It received a lukewarm response from both their major Arab allies and their European partners: the first considered it to be an unwelcome intrusion of Washington in their domestic affairs; the second, an interference with their own policies and economic interests in the region.
The present course aimed not only at examining the context of the U.S. relations with the four Maghrebi states at these specific junctures of their history, but it also proposed to re-discover the circumstances in which scores of American artists, writers, travellers or reporters were brought to engage, at the same time, with the North African reality, and the manner in which they recorded it (3).
This introductory presentation was destined for post-graduate students in American-North African cultural studies, but it is to be hoped that it may also serve the particular purpose of Maghrebi as well as American diplomats, who do not usually get the broader historical and cultural perspective in their pre-posting briefings.
(1) The Maghreb also rendered sometimes as Maghrib generally refers to the countries constituting the western half of North Africa, on the rim of the Mediterranean. The term is used in this study to refer collectively to the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, and does not include Mauritania, although it is a member of the Arab Maghreb Union.
(2) The Barbary Wars, also referred to as The Tripolitan Wars (1801-05) and The Algerine War (1815) were a series of mostly U.S. naval expeditions against the North African states, known collectively as the Barbary States. These were the Sultanate of Morocco, and the three Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli which were nominally independent but theoretically vassals of the Ottoman Sublime Porte.
(3) Some of the elements pertaining to the representation of Algeria in American writings were developed in: Osman Benchérif, The Image of Algeria in Anglo-American Writings, 1785-1962, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1997.