6. The United States and post-independence Maghreb

The Second World War had merely ended when the world was plunged into the so called ‘Cold War’, marked by the East-West confrontation which was to dominate the international scene until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Structurally the Cold War system had given a distinct bipolar configuration to world politics. In the Maghreb just as in the Middle Eastern world, the 1950s and the 1960s saw the emergence of socialist-nationalist republics which turned for support to the Soviet bloc, and traditional monarchies and civilian regimes which turned to the West for their security and development.

Throughout the Cold War period, the two superpowers battled for influence in the southern flank of the Mediterranean. As part of a zone that came under the North Atlantic security treaty, the North African littoral, extending from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Gulf of Syrte was clearly an area of strategic importance to the United States. Protection of the waterway and access to the Middle Eastern oil fields was vital to the prosperity and security of the United States.

For four decades, from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, the overriding foreign policy objective of successive American administrations was to keep the Soviet Union from gaining influence in the region or possibly drawing friendly countries away from the U.S. orbit. Washington never succeeded entirely, but each advance by the Kremlin was countered with U.S. economic and military assistance, aimed primarily at containing Soviet penetration in the region.

The second cause of American interest in the Maghreb was the discovery of oil and gas fields in Libya and Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s that turned the area into one of the major hydrocarbon sources, west of the Suez Canal. More than 90% of the investment and production in Libya was by American companies while in Algeria, the American companies came second only to the French ones. Interference of the U.S.S.R. into an area of such strategic and economic importance to the United States could hardly be welcome.

To a great extent, these specific considerations explain the nature of American involvement and dealings with that part of the world. They also account for the fact that U.S. relations with the four Maghrebi states were frequently reactive, consisting of responses to particular regional problems or crises.


Except for the occasional crisis, the United States enjoyed friendly relations with both Morocco and Tunisia. In contrast, the pattern of the U.S. relations with Algeria was guarded at its best, antagonistic at its worst, and very much contingent on the crisis of the moment. With Libya, on the other hand, as long as King Idriss remained on the throne, he adopted a pro-Western stand. After the coup launched by nationalist army officers, the regime established by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was clearly going to be much less friendly to the West. His continued criticism of U.S. policies, particularly in the Middle East, his support for a wide variety of revolutionary movements as well as Libya’s involvement with radical, revolutionary organizations brought Washington and Tripoli on a collision course.

U.S. – Moroccan relations
1. 1950s – 1960s

Following a trend that was set almost in the immediate post-independence period, Morocco’s relations with the United States were dominated until at least the mid-1990s by questions related to military and economic assistance.

In 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, the U.S. government entered into negotiations with France, the protectorate power, for the establishment of Strategic Air Command bases in Morocco. The United States had come to fully recognize the region’s strategic importance since the Allied landing there in November 1942. In the early 1950s, three main Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases were built at Benguedir, Sidi Slimane, and Nouasseur. They were devised as staging areas for deployment of shorter-range B-47 bombers aimed at the Soviet Union. At the same time, an agreement was made with the French for extending the U.S. Navy’s use of the French naval-air facilities at Port Lyautey (now Kenitra). The base had been used by United States military forces during the Second World War and was developed into a major U.S. Naval Air Station in 1951.

The Base Agreements inherited from France and economic aid were the principal topics of discussions between the U.S government and the newly independent Kingdom of Morocco in the late 1950s. With Moroccan independence in 1956, there was widespread criticism among the political parties denouncing the presence of foreign bases as violation of national sovereignty. The government of King Mohamed V wanted the U.S. Air Force to pull out of the SAC bases, a demand which became more pressing after the American intervention in Lebanon. The base had been used in 1958 as a major platform in the transfer of U.S. Marines to Lebanon when President Eisenhower ordered troops to that country in support of the government of Lebanese President Camille Chamaoun.

The air bases and the naval and air communications facilities the U.S. maintained in Morocco remained for some twenty years important elements of their military strength. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) bases in Morocco played a crucial role in the maintenance of a strategic deterrent against aggression and in the execution of the SAC missions. As for the naval and air communications facilities at Port Lyautey, they were essential to the operations of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean as well as a relay point to the entire Middle East.



In August 1959, Morocco made a request for U.S. military equipment and accepted a U.S. military survey team. The State Department considered that fulfilment of the request by Morocco for a limited military program would greatly help in the base discussions with the Moroccan government. Still more important in the U.S. decision to provide arms to Morocco, was the offer from the Soviet bloc to supply arms on generous financial terms and with hardly any conditions attached. A sizeable shipment of Czech arms had actually been delivered to Casablanca the year before. So it was of paramount importance to the U.S. government to avoid further Moroccan involvement with Communist bloc arms (1). On his journey back from a round trip that had taken him to Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in December 1959, President Eisenhower stopped at Casablanca where he reached an agreement with Mohamed V for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 1963. The SAC bases had actually become much less crucial with the long-range B-52 and the completion of the Spanish bases in 1959. The bases were turned over to the Morocco forces according to schedule and without incidents. Separate arrangements were made on U.S. communications stations, some of which remained in operation until the mid-seventies. The U.S. government met the King’s request for assistance in training Moroccan personnel to take over the bases once they were vacated. Further to the chance it gave U.S. personnel to have access to these bases after 1963 it allowed the Americans to make sure that the Moroccans would not allow hostile third powers to use these installations. The U.S. survey team had recommended a five-year program of military assistance that was to come in addition to a preliminary grant of up to $ 500,000.

The first disturbing signs of a potentially serious situation came late in December 1960 when Soviet arms arrived in Morocco. American officials assumed it was destined to the Algerian Liberation Army (A.L.N), but they feared the Moroccan Army may hold some. More alarming however was the Soviet offer of jet aircraft to Morocco. Washington considered then withdrawing all its military and economic assistance to Morocco. The Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though they disliked the idea of entering in direct competition with the Soviets, nevertheless considered that the strategic aspects of the U.S. bases in Morocco and the danger of a Soviet intrusion in an area on NATO’s southern flank justified a U.S. counter-offer. That came with the U.S. provision of over $ 6.5 million of military assistance which was made in December 1960 and which consisted of T-33 trainers and F-86 jet aircraft, pilot training, spares for the Royal Moroccan Air Force. It was offered in exchange of assurances given by the King that there would be no Soviet instructors and technicians introduced in Morocco. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned about the serious threat that the presence of Soviet pilots and technicians could pose to the U.S. SAC bases.


The Americans received assurances that the Moroccan pilots would be trained in the United Arab Republic, thus avoiding direct reliance on Soviet Union, but that alternative was hardly more satisfactory to the American government. U.S. officials had not failed to note that in the 1960 session of U.N. General Assembly, Morocco had supported the U.S.S.R. on six issues and the U.S. on none. The Moroccan government could not be considered as pro-Soviet but it was increasingly following a non-aligned course primarily because of its public opinion and nationalist opposition.

The U.S.-Moroccan relations, however, improved considerably after the death of Mohamed V, in February 1961 as his successor, King Hassan II, moved away from the non-alignment line embraced by his father and set to reinforce Moroccan ties with all the Western countries including the United States. Nonetheless, in 1965, the U.S. Military Assistance Program (MAP) to Morocco which had totalled $ 24.9 million for the previous five years was then being phased out. The figure for fiscal year (FY) 1965 that amounted to $ 800, 000 was largely for training and spare parts. The main problem for the American administration early in 1965 was meeting Morocco’s increasing concern over the Algerian build-up in military material with Soviet aid. Morocco requested additional Military Assistance Program funds beginning in FY 1965-66 and for at least the next two or three subsequent years.

Helping Morocco under its present circumstances posed a problem to the U.S. administration. Morocco was then experiencing serious financial difficulties and growing social unrest due to internal political and economic problems so that the additional military material it required would only put greater burdens on its budget. More importantly, conspicuous U.S. assistance to Morocco presented the risk of heightening polarization in North Africa. On the other hand, it was also important to the United States that Morocco maintained its basically pro-Western orientation. And Morocco had actually been particularly helpful to the U.S. in the recent U.N. Assembly on African issues regarding notably the Congo question. The United States eventually decided to provide a minimum program of additional jet aircraft phased over three or four years, and on condition that Morocco withdrew its Soviet MIG squadron.

In January 1965, Secretary of Defence McNamara approved an $ 11 million grant-credit arrangement recommended by the Department of State to help Morocco develop a deterrent to the presumed Algerian air threat by acquiring a squadron of 12 F-5 aircraft with delivery due to begin 12 to 18 months later. However, regardless of their pro-Western leaning, Moroccan relations with the U.S. during that period were adversely affected by both domestic and foreign crises. For all North African governments, whether they were friendly to the United States or otherwise, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war complicated their relations with Washington. Algeria broke its diplomatic relations with Washington following the outbreak of the conflict. The U.S.-Moroccan relations were generally sound but the Arab-Israeli crisis put pressure on King Hassan to lean towards neutralism. The influx of Soviet arms and technicians into neighbouring Algeria were of great concern to Morocco and engaged King Hassan to be more receptive to Soviet overtures, a move which brought the Americans to express their concern that Morocco’s warming relations with the Soviets could damage confidence between Washington and Rabat (2).


In September 1969, pro-Western King Idriss was overthrown by a group of military officers under the lead of Muammar Qaddafi who was pledging internal reforms and espousing Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause.

Following the Libyan coup and concerned about the future of his throne, King Hassan addressed a message to the American president, urging that Washington exercise influence in the Maghreb to offset the danger posed by the new radical regime in Libya. By the beginning of 1970, the Nixon administration with Henry Kissinger as the president’s Assistant for National Security Affairs was realizing the time had come for a systematic review of the entire situation in North Africa. When Secretary of State William Rogers visited Morocco in February 1970, King Hassan pressed Washington to impose peace in the Middle East to avoid further upheaval and Soviet infiltration. He urged the United States to cease arms delivery to Israel and force it to accept the U.N. Security Council settlement. Yet even if the American president was inclined to support the Moroccan appeal for peace, he viewed Soviet influence on Egypt, not Israel, as the great obstacle to the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

2. 1970s-1990s.

On 10 July 1971, King Hassan survived a coup attempt by discontented members of the Moroccan military. He had invited some 400 guests including diplomats to his seaside palace of Skhirat near Rabat to celebrate his 42nd birthday. The party ended in a burst of gunfire as more than 1,000 mutinous troops attacked the palace, hurtling grenades and spraying the grounds with small-arms fire. Nearly 100 guests were killed and more than 125 wounded. The king managed to escape with his life. In August 1972, another group of military officers made an unsuccessful attempt on the King’s life as he was returning from Paris aboard his private Boeing 727. As the Boeing approached Rabat’s airport, four Royal Moroccan Air Force F-5 fighters attacked the jetliner, seriously crippling one of its engines. The rebellious pilots only broke off their attack when they were radioed that the king had been killed. This double attempt on the king’s life was to cast a shadow over the U.S.-Moroccan relations. In the Skhirat affair, the main leader of the coup, General Mohamed Medbouh, had close links with the Americans. Hassan II suspected that the CIA had been involved in the plot against him, an accusation that the CIA Director denied categorically saying that “neither CIA nor any other element of U.S. Government had anything to do with recent plot against King Hassan” (3).

The appointment in 1973 of a new ambassador whose mission was to mend the impaired relations between the two countries, along with a substantial increase of the U.S. military aid eventually got the better of their mutual grievances. By the mid-1970s the U.S. became the main supplier of military armaments to Morocco, second only to France. The bulk of the U.S. armament was supplied as part of a programme of modernisation of the Moroccan Forces. The operation, due to be completed by 1979, was part of a Foreign Military Sales Financing programme(FMS), a major military aid programme extending credits on a grant basis to finance foreign arms sales, amounted to a total cost of $ 500 million. The amount of U.S. military aid, though it had increased three-fold, from $ 14 million to $ 45 million during the second half of the 1970s was quite insufficient to finance the operation which was only made possible thanks to generous contributions from Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf monarchies.


Following a Congressional hearing in 1978 in which the State Department admitted that Morocco had been using F-5 aircraft in the Western Sahara for nearly two years, Jimmy Carter decided to reduce arm sales to Morocco, with the stipulation that the weapons could not be used in the Western Sahara. Yet after Rabat threatened to seek Soviet weapons as a replacement and asked Washington to recall their ambassador, the Carter administration reversed its decision in October 1979 and approved a global contract for $ 232 million of arm sales to Morocco which included 6 OV-10 Bronco, 20 F-5 E fighter planes and 24 helicopters Hughes-500 to be delivered in 1981-1982. That reappraisal was largely the result of the set-backs suffered by the Carter administration in revolutionary Iran. The fall of the Shah in December 1978 and the surge of anti-Americanism that accompanied the triumphant return of Khomeini to Tehran found both Carter and Hassan II eager to heal the endangered U.S.-Moroccan relationship.

The end of the 1970s saw the U.S. and Morocco standing side by side on a large range of international issues: Rabat public support to the U.S. positions on the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in 1979 and on the Islamic revolution in Iran was highly valued coming from a long established Muslim monarchy. Both Washington and Rabat agreed on the destabilizing influence of the Soviet and Cubans in Africa. Washington also appreciated Rabat’s moderate stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hassan II was one of the rare Arab leaders to support Egyptian President Anouar el-Sadat’s peace initiative in its early stage. The secret meeting between Israel Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egypt Deputy Prime Minister Hassan el-Touhamy that was to pave the way for Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem was held in Morocco in 1977. Rabat also supported the Camp David Accords negotiated between the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar el-Sadat under the auspices of President Jimmy Carter in September 1978. Later, Morocco joined the nearly unanimous Arab rejection of the Peace Treaty signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979 but the Moroccan turn-about had more to do with the securing of Arab support on the Western Saharan issue than real opposition to the Peace Treaty itself

It was under Ronald Reagan’s presidency that the U.S.-Moroccan relations were boosted and flourished. The newly installed Reagan administration signalled a clear shift in policy, marked by significant public U.S. commitment to Morocco and support to its military efforts in the Western Sahara. “It is the prevailing view of this administration that America’s allies and close associates should expect understanding and reliable support”, said Morris Draper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs in testimony before Congress in March 1981.


Draper added that Morocco was an ally that needed “additional support and consideration” and saying that the U.S. would not withhold arms for what he termed “reasonable and legitimate purposes”. And indeed, soon after taking office, Ronald Reagan authorized the delivery of M-60 tanks, OV-10 as well as F-5 aircrafts to Morocco. The fact that the arms sale had been approved by his predecessor and was due to be delivered in 1981 did not do much difference to the Algerians. The decision came just two days after the American hostages in Iran had been released, largely through the good offices of Algeria. The U.S. escalating support for Morocco was confirmed in early February, when an American embassy spokesman in Morocco announced the delivery of the first two of six OV-10 counter-insurgency aircrafts.

From 1980 to 1984, U.S. assistance to Morocco increased considerably from $ 50 million to $ 156 million. Senior members of the Reagan administration including vice-president George Bush, Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger, all visited Morocco and repeatedly emphasized the two countries long relationship and King Hassan’s pro-western stance and moderate voice in the Arab world. The King’s support of joint military exercises, his signing of the 1982 base agreement which granted U.S. forces access to Moroccan airfields and transit during unspecified contingencies in addition to his offer to make the base of Benguedir an alternative landing site for the space shuttle in case of emergency indicated that strategic considerations were paramount in U.S. policies toward Morocco. When U.S. interest in Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf intensified in 1979, use of Moroccan military facilities for naval and air operations took on even greater importance. In 1982, Morocco’s possible role in deployment of the U.S. Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF) was brought to the forefront. A Joint Military Commission between Morocco and the United States was established and following a visit of King Hassan to the United States, an agreement between the two countries was signed in May. Morocco agreed to allow U.S. use of two major airfields: Mohamed V, the international civilian airport outside of Casablanca, and Sidi Slimane, a military base about 60 miles northeast of Rabat.

The end of the Cold War left the U.S. with vast quantities of surplus military equipment. Some unneeded weapons were destroyed or transferred to civilian agencies but most was transferred to foreign militaries. Starting in 1990, the US transferred approximately $ 7 billion worth of military equipment. Part of these surplus weapons were donated or offered to export at little or no cost to their recipients. Between 1990 and 1993, the U.S. supplied over $ 300 million in arms, meeting 30 per cent of Morocco’s military needs. The equipment included M-60s tanks and used F-16 planes.

The Western Sahara issue

In 1975, in the wake of a troubled period marked by two consecutive attempts on the King’s life, Morocco annexed Spain’s former colonial territory of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, later referred to as the Western Sahara. Morocco claimed that it was merely restoring its territorial integrity after dismemberment by Spanish and French colonialism. The Moroccan claim on the territory was challenged by the Saharawi nationalists of the “Frente Popular para la Liberation de Saguia el-Hamra y del Rio de Oro” (Polisario), backed by Algeria, who both appealed to the decisions of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and to the arbitration of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The U.N.’s involvement in the Western Sahara issue started in 1963 but it was in December 1965 that the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what was then called Spanish Sahara, requesting Spain to “take all necessary measures” to decolonize the territory. Between 1966 and 1973 the General Assembly adopted seven more resolutions on the territory, all of which reiterated the need to hold a referendum on self-determination.

In October 1975, the International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania. The ICJ found no evidence “of any legal tie of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara and Morocco but “indication of a legal tie of allegiance between the Sultan and some of the tribes of the territory”. The court recognized the Saharawis’ right to self-determination and Spain agreed to organize a referendum. But in November 1975, King Hassan ordered a “Green March” in which some 300,000 unarmed civilians crossed from Morocco into the territory. Spain backed down and negotiated a settlement with Morocco and Mauritania, known as the Madrid Agreement. Signed on 14 November 1975, the agreement partitioned the territory. Morocco acquired two-thirds in the north and Mauritania the remaining third. Spain agreed to end colonial rule.

The Polisario rejected the Spanish agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, declaring it illegal because it denied the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination. On 27 February 1976, immediately after the Spanish withdrawal, the Polisario declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and continued armed resistance. Over the next three years the Polisario grew in strength and led a guerilla against Moroccan and Mauritanian forces. In August 1978, a new Mauretanian government signed a peace deal with the Polisario and withdrew from the Western Sahara, abandoning all its territorial claims. Morocco promptly moved to occupy the areas vacated by Mauritania, so that the guerilla war, led by the Polisario against Moroccan forces continued for another thirteen years.

In 1980, the Moroccans began building a system of protective walls that enclosed three-quarters of the Western Sahara’s territory. The defensive barrier, completed in 1987 was a collection of six different walls running along the Algerian and Mauritanian frontiers for more than 1 670 miles. It was designed to protect the capital of Western Sahara, Laayoune, the city of Smara and the phosphate mines at Bou Craa. These walls were not just berms of sand and stone but fortified positions with observation points and electronic equipment which closed off 80 per cent of the territory and reduced considerably Polisario’s capacity to launch raiding operations inside the enclave. With the completion of the wall in 1987, the Polisario’s military activities began to wane. Concurrently, Morocco poured millions of dollars into the territory, building schools, hospitals, and telecommunication facilities staffed by thousands of Moroccan civilians.


That consolidation of Morocco’s presence in what it called the “useful” Sahara was made possible thanks to the military and economic aid from the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia

In September 1991, the United Nations succeeded in imposing a cease fire. The U.N. peace plan provided for a transition period, leading to a referendum in January 1992. Western Saharans would then be offered to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The ceasefire was to be monitored by a combined military and civilian force, the United Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The ceasefire held but the implementation was repeatedly delayed due to continuing disagreement over the question of voter eligibility. Morocco and the Polisario differed over how to identify qualified voters for the referendum, with each party seeking to ensure a voter roll that would support its side. In May 1996 the U.N. suspended the voter “identification process” and recalled most Minurso civilian staff. Military personnel stayed behind to oversee the ceasefire (4).

In March 1997, U.N. Secretary General named former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as his Personal Envoy to break the deadlock. Baker mediated four rounds of talks between Moroccans and Polisario representatives, the last in Houston, Texas in September 1997 to get the voter identification process restarted. The Houston Accords established a timetable for a referendum allowing Saharawis to choose between independence and integration into Morocco. However, by the beginning of 2000, hopes for holding the long-delayed referendum faded again. The U.N. identified a provisional list of approximately 90,000 eligible voters but rejected the inclusion of three tribes representing some 51,000 other applicants from the Moroccan side. Morocco, fearing electoral defeat, blocked the referendum.

In a new bid to break the deadlock, James Baker submitted a “Framework Agreement”, known as the Third Way, in June 2001. It provided for autonomy for the Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers resident in Western Sahara for over a year. The formula was rejected by Polisario and Algeria. Then in July 2003, the U.N. adopted a compromise resolution proposing that Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years. A referendum would then take place in which voters would choose between integration with Morocco, autonomy or independence. In the interim period, a Western Sahara Authority would be the local government, and Morocco would be responsible for foreign relations, national security, and defense. Polisario signaled its readiness to accept, but Morocco rejected the plan, claiming security concerns. In April 2004, Morocco declared that it would only accept autonomy as a final political solution. Polisario categorically rejected autonomy and insisted on the Saharawis’ right to self-determination through a referendum. James Baker resigned as Secretary General’s Envoy in June 2004 and the U.N. process was once again in a deadlock. Four years later, in March 2008, Morocco and Polisario ended several rounds of talks at Manhasset, near New York City without narrowing their differences on Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute. In January 2009 U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon appointed U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross as his new envoy to break the impasse.

The U.S. and the Western Sahara conflict

Together with the United Nations, the role played by the United States, because of the diplomatic pressure it could exercise on the two key protagonists was central. Although the U.S. adopted a position of neutrality on the Western Sahara dispute, Morocco has throughout the conflict benefited of Washington’s modulated but constant support as it tried to balance its clear interests in the survival of the Moroccan king with a desire to avoid being entangled in a conflict in which undue exertion of American pressure entailed far-reaching consequences to U.S. larger regional relations.

From the outset of the crisis in the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, the U.S. approach to the Western Sahara dispute was centered on military support to Morocco while on the political and diplomatic front the U.S. assumed a neutral stance which meant that it did not back Morocco’s sovereignty claim over the Western Sahara.

The beginning of Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-1981) saw a crisis between the two countries in 1978 when the U.S. decided to freeze arms sales to Morocco. But tension eased a year later with the administration’s approval for the resumption of arms sales to Morocco.

Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-1989) military support for Morocco was escalated, signaling a significant shift that was in line with administration’s overall foreign policy. The conflict in the Western Sahara was viewed as part of the East-West block confrontation. The Polisario Front was branded as a Soviet surrogate armed and supported by Soviet-aligned countries. Conversely, Morocco was presented as one of Washington’s closest allies in the region in need of military support, a call that the Reagan administration would not ignore. In the autumn of 1980, thanks in part to U.S. military aid, Morocco began constructing a system of defensive sand walls studded with fortified positions, observation points, and early warning equipment. By 1987, the sixth wall was completed, limiting considerably penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. Between 1975 and 1988, Morocco had received more than one-fifth of all U.S. aid to the continent, totaling more than $ 1 billion in military assistance and $ 1.3 billion in economic assistance programmes.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Morocco lost its strategic importance to U.S. policy makers. American direct involvement in the Western Sahara decreased. George H. Bush’s presidency (1989-1993) adopted a neutral stance and called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In 1991, Morocco supported the coalition forces in the first Gulf War and sent 2,000 Moroccan soldiers to defend Saoudi Arabia’s oil fields. But that support to a U.S.ally failed to sway President Bush’s position on the Western Sahara dispute which, as he reiterated it to King Hassan that same year, was an issue for the United Nations to address.


During Bill Clinton’s two terms (1993-2001), there was a shift in U.S. policy back toward a stronger support to Morocco as the Clinton administration appeared to be favoring a permanent control of Morocco over Western Sahara. In November 1995, the United States sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have forced the referendum to proceed without Polisario approval, and based largely on Moroccan-supported voter lists. The resolution was eventually withdrawn as a result of vigorous opposition from Algeria and South Africa.

In the early part of the second Clinton administration, the U.S. abandoned its support for the failed United Nations attempt to hold a referendum on the future of the territory. Eight years of effort had failed to bridge the gap between Morocco and the Polisario. With 145,000 appeals pending, the U.N. stopped the registration process and the United States shifted its policy and urged the parties to seek a compromise political solution. The compromise meant that the choice would not be between an independent state and a fully integrated territory into Morocco, but between autonomy and integration under Moroccan sovereignty.

During George W. Bush’s presidency (2001-2009), the United States returned to a more neutral stance, although it intervened in other issues when it mediated Rabat’s dispute with Spain over Leila Island (Perejil). The United States acknowledged Morocco’s administrative control over most of the Western Sahara, but it did not recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over that territory.

In 2003, the United Nations adopted a compromise resolution proposing, after a transitional period, a referendum on independence, autonomy or integration with Morocco. The plan was rejected by Morocco but the United States refrained from imposing any settlement on Rabat for fear of destabilizing King Mohamed VI’s rule. Uppermost also in the American considerations was the centrality of the war on terror in the Bush administration’s strategies and the necessity therefore to reinforce its cooperation with Morocco, a long-time moderate Arab ally, a supporter of the global war against terrorism, and a willing go-between in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Congress, despite an important pro-Moroccan lobby, has been divided on the Western Sahara issue. Saharawis have received unfailing support from Democratic as well Republican members of Congress. The late Senator Edward Kennedy was a constant defender of the Saharawi people’s to determine its own future, in line with U.N. resolutions and international law. Over several decades, he was very vocal and championed the Western Sahara cause in the U.S. Senate. He did not hesitate to publicly criticize the U.S. executives of both parties, for not doing enough to pressure Morocco and strengthen the U.N. effort.

In the ending days of George W. Bush administration, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross as his special envoy to deal with Western Sahara but two years after his nomination, there appeared to be no sign in sight yet for an end to the impasse.


In the meantime the standing issue has hindered a growing range of U.S. and international objectives in the region, as it has obstructed greater economic development cooperation in the region through the U.S.-North Africa Economic Partnership launched in 1998, also referred to as the Eizenstat Initiative. More importantly, the continuing conflict has also enfeebled the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) as a political and economic entity. From the beginning of the conflict, Algeria having achieved independence after a long and violent struggle with France, saw the Western Sahara as one of the world’s last decolonization issues and has steadfastly supported the Polisario’s struggle for self-determination. On the other hand, Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over the territory has unified Moroccans and reinforced support for a monarchy that had survived two coups attempts. King Mohammed VI has strongly reasserted Morocco’s claim to the region since he ascended to the throne in July 1999. Hence Morocco’s negative response to the 2003 Baker plan and its rejection of the compromise solution that the Polisario was prepared to accept. Consequently, the prospects for an improvement of the relations between Morocco and Algeria looked dim in 2009-2010 when all the official statements made by the different parties to the conflict clearly indicated that the Western Sahara impasse was quite likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

U.S. - Algerian relations
U.S. - Algerian relations in the first phase of independence

The U.S. relations with independent Algeria could hardly have started under less favourable circumstances. Even though the United States was prompt to recognize the Algerian state and sent an ambassador to Algiers in the early months of independence, American relations with the new Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria started to deteriorate when Algeria’s first Head of State, Ahmed Ben Bella, decided to fly directly to Cuba from the United States after meeting with President Kennedy at the White House the day before, in an evident show of support for the Cuban revolution. Ben Bella had just attended the United Nations annual session when Algeria was officially admitted as the 109th member of the U.N. on 8 October 1962.

From Havana, Ben Bella joined Fidel Castro in calling for the evacuation of the American naval base of Guantanamo. The act of the Algerian leader was considered in Washington as a deliberate affront to the American President. Eight days later, the State Department told the Agency for International Development (AID) to suspend all economic aid to Algeria. The diplomatic incident was aggravated by the domestic and foreign policy orientations of Ben Bella’s government which contributed to further widening the divide between the two countries.

Algeria’s long struggle for independence and the revolutionary stance its leadership adopted had shaped its foreign policy based on an uncompromising sense of independence, non-alignment and anti-imperialism. The antagonism which characterized the relations between the two countries in the early years of independence was related to a host of foreign-policy issues, from War in Vietnam, embargo on Cuba, intervention in the Congo and in the Dominican Republic, support for Israel against the Palestinians. The relations of Ben Bella’s government with the United States continued to deteriorate as the Decrees of March 1963 concerning the nationalizations affected properties of a few American citizens. The private claims they filed for several million dollars contributed to fuel the diplomatic tensions between Washington and the young Algerian Republic.


Another source of concern for the U.S. government was the Algerian military build-up with Soviet assistance following the border fighting that broke out in the autumn of 1963 between Algeria and Morocco. The territorial borders of independent Algeria had been a heritage of the French colonial empire in north-western Africa. Getting recognition of the lines drawn by the former colonial power was one of the fundamental principles of Algerian foreign policy. Algeria had no difficulty coming to a mutual agreement on her borders with Mauretania, Mali, and Niger. With Tunisia, whose claims on Algerian territory, still under French rule, had been turned down by de Gaulle, a formal agreement was finally signed in 1970. With Libya, which claimed a strip of Algerian territory between Ghat and Ghadames, an agreement was reached in the 1980s. With Morocco, the border issue proved more difficult to resolve. The Algero-Moroccan border had been officially mapped only as far as Figuig. The rest had been established de facto as territories under French military rule. On that basis, Morocco claimed a region which included Bechar, Touat and the Tindouf region in addition to the claims it had over the Western Sahara from which Spain was preparing to withdraw.

In October 1963, a border war erupted between Algeria and Morocco. Unprepared and poorly equipped, the Algerian troops and civilian volunteers rushed to the border, took a battering by superior forces. It was largely as a consequence of that smarting experience that the Algerian had turned to the Soviets for military assistance and arms. Greatly concerned with the growing military capabilities of a country with which they had border disputes, both Morocco and Tunisia sought additional American military aid as well as a United States guarantee to their national security. While the U.S. could consider limited amounts of arms for Morocco and Tunisia, it was determined to avoid being caught in a North African arms race. Aware of the danger of excessive polarization and possible East-West confrontation in the region by proxy, the U.S. strategy was to include Algeria in their assistance programmes and to convince its leadership of its good will. Furthermore, Algeria had 10 per cent of the world’s gas reserves. The French were the predominant investors in Algerian gas fields, but American companies came second with about $ 100 million invested. So throughout that period, U.S. government policy was to keep the door open in an effort to improve the passably troublesome relations with Algeria. On the other hand, while the Algerian government continued to stress interest in establishing good bilateral relations with the U.S., public support to Vietnam, Cuba, Korea by Algerian press, radio, and other semi-governmental groups, shed doubt on real interest of the Algerian leadership in close relations with the U.S. (5). The U.S. considered Ben Bella’s endorsement of Communist-line positions on world affairs as markedly inconsistent with normal non-alignment. Specific incidents were brought to the attention of the Embassy in Washington and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Algiers. In a telegram from Algiers dated 24 January 1964, Ambassador William Porter reported to the State Department that he had not been able to take up the matter of Algeria’s pro-communist propaganda activities directly with Ben Bella but had asked Algerian Ambassador to the United States, Cherif Guellal “to convey to Ben Bella the message that the United States was watching this carefully” (6).


If under President Kennedy, the U.S. had entertained hopes for better relations with Algeria, it was clear that President Johnson did not have the same personal interest or understanding of his predecessor for Algeria. The State Department favoured a conciliatory policy towards Algeria but the President and his national security advisers adopted a less conciliatory stance. During this period, American assistance to the country remained minimal. Apart from a few student scholarships and the running of a medical assistance unit, the U.S. government aid consisted essentially of surplus food. From $ 53 million in PL- 480 for fiscal year 1964, it was cut back to $ 24 million in 1965. In one of his haranguing rallies, Ben Bella referred to American wheat aid as “poisonous bread”, a remark that Secretary Dean Rusk called insulting to the American taxpayer who supported part of the PL- 480 programs. The course of the U.S.-Algerian relations as he observed to Algerian Ambassador, Cherif Guellal, was now set on a descending spiral. By June 1965, grievances between the two countries were such that U.S. aid to Algeria was being seriously questioned and Washington’s decision to gradually phase out the PL- 480 programmes marked a further degradation in the U.S.-Algerian relations.

The Boumediene era (1965-1978)

The bloodless military coup which on the morning of 19 June 1965, brought Vice Premier and Defence Minister Houari Boumediene to power, was greeted most favourably by the U.S. diplomats in Algiers who tended to assume that the new government was likely to pay more attention to the faltering Algerian economy and adopt a more genuinely non-aligned course on foreign issues than his predecessor. The man, in contrast with his austere figure, had been reportedly warm, open, and attentive in his contacts with U.S. officials. American policies stopped coming under attacks from the Official press and radio, and as a signal of that change, the New York Times was the first newspaper to re-appear on Algiers’ news-stands after the fall of Ben Bella. Although still leaning toward the Eastern Socialist states with which it pursued an active cooperation, the new Algerian government looked to the West for a more efficient technical assistance. But six months later, in December 1965, divisive frictions over external issues made the slightly improved relations take a plunge again as the U.S. Ambassador in Algiers and the State Department protested over a joint communiqué issued at the end of Boumediene’s trip to Moscow, and its lists of usual grievances against the United States.


Still there was the American stake in Algerian oil to consider. After much delay, a modest new P.L. 480 programme on the grounds of Algeria’s strategic importance was finally cleared by President Johnson and signed in February 1966. Soon after the President had reluctantly approved the P.L. 480 agreement, the Algerian released a letter to Ho Chi Minh. The strong reaction of the President to his collaborators was not to send any new wheat shipment to Algeria without checking with him first (7).

Eventually, after much “soul-searching” Secretary of State Rusk recommended a P.L. 480 dollar sale of 200.000 tons of wheat to Algeria. Algeria estimated then its need at just over 900.000 tons of grain. It had bought 400.000 tons in the U.S. for cash and the Soviet Union had offered 200.000 tons from its own Canadian purchases and had bought an extra 100.000 tons on the market. This left a gap of just over 200.000 tons which the Secretary of State recommended to supply in a memorandum sent to the President. He argued that lack of response to the Algerian request in a year of drought was being interpreted by Algerians as an “indication of political hostility” and that it was important that the United States maintained “enough of a stake in Algeria to forestall complete Soviet domination” (8).

With stocks running short, and a food situation aggravated by the severe drought Algeria had suffered that year, the Algerians aired their concern over U.S. failure to help with wheat while the official press resumed its attacks on U.S. foreign policies. By January 1967, relations were so soured that the U.S. Ambassador in Algiers, John D. Jernegan addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdellaziz Bouteflika, a letter protesting against the anti-American attacks in the government media and deploring the state of the U.S.-Algerian relations “whose atmosphere was worsening rather than improving”. Bouteflika defiantly sent the ambassador’s letter to El Moudjahid for publication, a gesture that was meant to demonstrate that Algeria was not prepared to give in on her political principles for the sake of normalizing her relations with the U.S.

In contrast to that situation, the American relations with Morocco which had been relatively good throughout looked even better in 1967. Following a state visit of King Hassan to the U.S. in February, Morocco obtained $ 15 million in military aid and the promise of 8 fighter-bombers in addition to wheat delivery. The U.S. Under Secretary of State for African Affairs’ statement, justifying the American decision on the ground of Algeria’s aggressive stance, rubbed salt into the wound and provoked the wrath of the Algerian government.

On 12 April, the Secretary of State Robert Mc Namara told Congress that $ 31.2 million would be allocated to the neighbouring countries of Algeria to compensate for the delivery of Soviet arms to that country. On 24 April, angry anti-American demonstrations took place at Algiers in front of the U.S. Cultural Centre branded, as a “branch of the CIA”. A few months later, as a result of the Six-Day War which broke out on 5 June 1967, between Israel on one side and the UAR, Jordan and Syria on the other, Algeria announced on 6 June, that it was breaking diplomatic relations with the United States for its support to Israel, and placed American oil companies operating in Algeria under state control.


The same day, Assistant Secretary Palmer called in the Algerian Ambassador and told him that the United States intended to deal with the break on a reciprocal basis and expected full protection of U.S. nationals and property in Algeria (9). Ambassador Jernegan left Algiers on 10 June. A U.S. Interests Section staffed by U.S. diplomatic and consular personnel continued to function under the Swiss flag. The Interest Section retained the right to direct telegraphic communications with Washington. The Algerian interests in the United States were represented by the Guinean Embassy.

Black Panthers in Algiers, 1969-1973

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence (BPP) emerged in the mid-sixties during the civil rights movement, presenting a new development of the African American freedom struggle in the United States. The party was founded in October 1966 by civil rights activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. Both had experienced racial discrimination and had seen first-hand brutality of the police against the Blacks. The BBP was inspired in part, by the ideas of murdered black militant Malcolm X. It encouraged African Americans to defend themselves against their white oppressors, threatened retaliation against police brutalities, and ran “survival” programmes for the black community.

The very radical nature of an organization whose members frequently carried guns made it very attractive to those young African Americans who were angered by the system and wanted to fight for their full civil rights more aggressively than through the non-violent strategy of Rev. Martin Luther King. The Party grew to 5,000 members nationwide with cells in more than twenty states and an International Section in Algeria. An important aspect of the BPP was its international dimension and the convergence of Black Panther political radicalism and commitment to armed struggle with those of revolutionary activism of the late 1960s.

Leading figures of the civil rights movement joined the Black Panthers including Eldridge Cleaver whose book, Soul on Ice (1968), written while he was in jail in California was a violent indictment of black alienation in the United States, and former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and college professor Angela Davis. Her affiliation with the BPP in 1968 resulted in the loss of her teaching post as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1967 already, the Los Angeles section of COINTELPRO, the FBI acronym for “counterintelligence programme” that was first launched in 1956 against the Communist Party-USA (CPUSA), was revived with war against the BPP as its main target. An internal memorandum addressed by FBI Director John Edgar Hoover to all FBI offices explained the programme’s objectives:

“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavour is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters” (10).


In an interview given to the New York Time on 8 September 1968, J. Edgar Hoover publicly stated that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. The following three years proved to be devastating for the organization. Hard-hitting operations were ordered to cripple the Panthers. Police raids were conducted against party offices.

In April 1968, waves of rebellion spread rapidly across the black community inner-city ghettos with the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Memphis, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, and a score of other cities went up in flames and riots. Two days after the killing of the leader of the non-violent Black civil rights movement, Eldridge Cleaver was wounded in a shoot-out with the Oakland Police in which two officers were also wounded and another Black Panther member, Bobby Hutton was shot dead as he tried to surrender. Six months later, faced with criminal charges, Cleaver jumped a $ 50,000 bail and fled with his wife Kathleen to Cuba. After an unpleasant stint there, the couple travelled to Algeria where Cleaver was greeted as an African American freedom fighter and given a villa in Algiers by the government. African American militants were greeted not merely as exiles but as revolutionaries needing Algeria’s support in their struggle for the recognition of their rights at home.

In 1969 when Eldridge Cleaver settled with his wife and a few Black Panther companions in Algiers, Algeria and most countries in Africa were still celebrating their newly gained independence. Other countries such as South Africa, Mozambique or Angola were still engaged in a struggle for their independence. Practically all the African and Third-world liberation movements of the period had representatives in Algiers at that time. Algiers, in the words of Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), had become the “Mecca of the revolutionaries”.

It was Charles Chikarema, the local representative of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) who introduced Cleaver to his friend Elaine Klein, an American woman who had good contacts in Algerian government circles. Elaine Klein had studied during the 1950s in Paris, where she became an ardent supporter of the Algerian independence cause. She had also been a close friend of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and an ardent anti-colonialist militant, having accompanied him to the United States when he went there for medical treatment for his terminal leukaemia (11). She had moved to Algiers soon after independence and worked as press secretary for the Ministry of Information. Klein who knew most of the leaders of the African liberation movements in Algiers befriended Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver and arranged for the American fugitives to stay in the country where as Minister of information of the BBP in exile, he established the “ Panthers’ International Section in Algeria”.

From 21 July to 1 August 1969, the First Pan-African Cultural Festival was held in Algiers. Hundreds of delegates came from thirty one independent African countries and representatives from several movements for African liberation. Elaine Klein had secured invitations to the Festival for a delegation of the Black Panthers Party. Along with Eldridge Cleaver, his wife Kathleen, and Emory Douglas who were already in Algiers, the delegation included Chief of Staff, David Hilliard and Raymond “Masai” Hewitt, Minister of Education.


The Black Panthers Party delegation stayed at the Hotel Aletti (now El-Safir) which became the meeting place for political groups and organizations present at the time in Algiers. Algeria’s Minister of Information, Mohammed Benyahia, also authorized the Black Panther Party to hold an official exhibit in relation with the Festival. The Panthers were given a large office on one of the main streets in downtown Algiers which they transformed into the Afro-American Information Centre. The place was located near the local office of Al Fatah, the most important of the Palestinian liberation movements led by Yasser Arafat. A close bond developed between the Al Fatah and the Panther militants, and Cleaver embraced the Palestinian cause in his speech at the opening of the Festival.

The Festival also drew artists, musicians, groups of dancers, singers and writers from all over Africa and beyond. Expatriated Stokely Carmichael came with his South African-exiled wife, Miriam Makeba. The festival had been able to attract such politicized musicians and singers from the United States as Archie Shepp and Nina Simone. Archie Shepp performed at the festival with Clifton Thornton on cornet, Grachan Moncur on trombone, and Dave Burrell on piano and Sunny Murray on drums. In one of their performances, the group played with a large group of Tuareg musicians. That session in which Archie Shepp was in a pretty militant spirit was recorded and released under the title “Live At the Pan-African Festival” (12), a trance-like moment of Afro-American communion where the American jazzmen improvised their lines over the percussion of the North African drums, tambourines and karkabous (metallic castanets). “We have come back to our land of Africa, the music of Africa. Jazz is a black power! Jazz is an African power! Jazz is an African music! We have come back”, a Shepp in militant mood called out to the audience in the heat of the African night.

William Klein, an American photographer and filmmaker was also on the spot. He had been sponsored by the Algerian government to film the First Pan-African Festival. The artist was not well known in his native country, partly because he spent most of his adult life in Paris where he had settled after he returned from the war. He had made some lively documentaries which reflected his deeply political though independent-minded views. The Algerians had seen the film he had just done on Muhammad Ali (13). The picture was a big success in Algiers where it was shown for weeks in several movie theatres.

William Klein’s film on the Festival explores both the political and the cultural aspects of African event. The document draws on archives of the Algerian independence struggle and interviews with representatives of liberation movements and African writers present in Algiers. Third World solidarity was then the order of the day. Many of the interviewees came up with their condemnation of colonialism and imperialism, and the need for the exploited countries to stick together. The documentary featured an interview of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife who had just given birth to their baby boy. Klein filmed Cleaver for three days and three nights, capturing intriguing facets of Cleaver’s personality as he is seen indulging in drugs, fiddling with a gun, and talking about the relationship between the Black Panther movement and the African liberation movements.


He also presents his plans for a revolution in the United States and for the overthrow of the U.S. government, and goes on with a denunciation of his political adversaries, President Richard Nixon, Governor of California Ronald Reagan and Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley (14). In the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and confronted with the wave of rioting that swept through the Black West Side of Chicago, Daley had issued an order to the municipal police to “shoot to kill any arsonist…. with a Molotov cocktail in his hand”.

In the wake of the Pan-African festival, several Black American fugitives with whom Cleaver had been associated in Havana joined him in Algiers. Two of them, Byron Booth and Clinton Smith, had spent time with him years earlier in prison. As the clashes between Black Panther members and police forces in the United States continued, the number of fugitives who rallied Algiers to avoid arrest or imprisonment increased to about thirty people in 1971. Some of those fugitives were former criminals turned revolutionaries who became an embarrassment to the Algerian government when they started hijacking planes to Algeria.

Early in 1970, the FBI had undertaken to sow the seeds of division in the Black Panthers, in part by infiltrating the movement and by circulating forged correspondence intended to push ideological differences between Party leaders and to create dissent within the organization. Eldridge Cleaver was one of their main targets. They manage to persuade him with a series of misinformation that Huey P. Newton, the BPP Minister of Defence was trying to remove him from power. As a result of the split, Cleaver and some of his followers created their own Black Liberation Army (BLA). By the end of 1971, the BPP had been all but decimated by police repression and most of its militants were either in exile or in prison.

The spring and summer of 1972 saw an upsurge of airplane hijacking in the United States. Early in June, a young African American wearing a U.S. Army uniform threatened to detonate a bomb aboard a Western Airline jet flight to Seattle unless his demands were met. In San Francisco, he exchanged half of the passengers for a larger jet and collected $ 500,000 in ransom. In New York, he exchanged the remaining passengers for a navigator and headed for Algiers. When Roger Holder, a deserter from the Vietnam War walked off the plane in Algiers carrying a bag stuffed with money which he claimed was for the Black Liberation Army, the Algerian police took him into custody and confiscated the ransom money. Cleaver and his small retinue were put under house arrest. The decision of the Algerians to return the ransom money and the airplane to Western Airlines was the sign that the BPP was no longer welcome in Algiers. In 1973, the Cleavers managed to leave for France where friends of Elaine Klein who had sheltered Algerian militants during the war of independence, provided them with safe places to stay. Once the Vietnam War was ended and after the Watergate scandal had forced Richard Nixon to a disgraceful exit, Cleaver decided to return openly to America in 1975. He later revealed several aspects of his exile in Algiers in Soul on Fire, the book he published in 1978. Kathleen Cleaver, his wife joined Yale University in August 1981. She graduated in 1983 with a degree in history.


The article she contributed to Charles E. Jones’ book, The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (1998), was adapted from a paper she wrote in 1983 in fulfilment of Yale University’s graduation requirements for history majors. Five years later, she received a law degree from Yale University and began teaching at Emory University in Atlanta.

The seesaw normalization of the U.S- Algerian relations, 1970-1978

Surprisingly, political antagonism did not seem to get in the way of economic relations between the United States and Algeria. With a first three-year plan (1967-1969) followed by two consecutive four-year plans, Algeria had embarked on a centrally directed development process designed to give an industrial base to the country. As the program of industrialization accelerated during the first four-year plan (1970-1973), the Algerians turned to the West for technology and equipment and tended to diversify their economic partners in order to avoid political pressure or economic blackmail. Despite the political impasse, the American business community responded positively and considered that Algeria was a country it could do business with. American firms became major partners in some of the most important industrial projects. The United States became and remained, until the early 1980s, the first customer for Algerian hydrocarbons and a major supplier of machinery, equipment, and engineering. The state oil company, SONATRACH, played a pioneering role in signing in 1969 with El-Paso a huge contract for 10 billion cubic meters/year of Algerian liquefied gas. It was all the more remarkable that the transaction had taken place while the diplomatic relations between the two countries were still severed. The construction of the liquefaction plant at Arzew was given to Chemico and then to Bechtel. Another contract was signed with Bechtel again for the construction of a trans-Mediterranean gas pipeline between Algeria and Sicily. Finance was also made available by the American Eximbank for the construction of the liquefaction plant of Arzew and for the acquisition of two Boeing 727 as well as railways heavy equipment.

Economic overtures to the West did not prevent Algeria’s policies to be guided by the principles of independence and militant non-alignment mixed with a determination to stand up to what it viewed as neo-imperialist policies in the Western world. Algeria became the spokesman of Third World nationalism and the most vocal proponent of its new economics. In April 1974, it was Boumedienne who convened a Special Session of the United Nations in New York and delivered the opening address in which he called for a new International Economic Order (NIEO). The NIEO was a Third World manifesto for revision of the global system of economic relations. It had first been propounded by the leaders of the non-aligned movement at their Algiers summit in the autumn of 1973. At the Special Session of the General Assembly, Boumediene called more specifically for easier credit for developing nations, and higher prices for their main primary products. It was the position that Algeria had also initially defended in OPEC on its creation in 1973, standing as a hard-liner on prices and as an advocate of strictly controlled production in order to keep prices up.


During that trip, accompanied by two ministers of his ministers, Bouteflika and Benyahia, Boumediene met Nixon and Kissinger. On his fifth peace shuttle to the Middle-East, Kissinger stopped at Algiers where he met again with Boumediene for seven hours on 30 April, and again for three hours on 16 October, on his return from his sixth mission to the Middle-East. At the end of that year, the diplomatic relations were resumed and Richard B. Parker was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Algeria.

The influence and prestige of Algeria as the standard bearer of the New World Order, reached its climax at the meeting of the OPEC Heads of States in Algiers in March 1975, which called for a North-South dialogue and more justice in the redistribution of the world’s wealth. The meeting also meant to show the unity of purpose among the OPEC members, symbolized by the public reconciliation between Iran and Irak, engineered by Boumediene himself.

By that time, dozens of contracts were signed with Algerian State companies confirming the role of the U.S. as a major partner in the industrial development of the country. The tripling of oil prices of the mid-70s kept Algeria well supplied with cash to purchase turn-key industrial units. A contract was signed with the American company, General Telephone and Electric International to provide Algeria with 14 ground stations for domestic telephone communications using the American satellite system, Intelsat. The stations, delivered in just one year, were inaugurated by President Boumediene in the summer of 1975. At the same time, SONELEC, the state electricity company signed with the same American firm a contract for the construction of a radio and TV plant at Sidi Bel-Abbes. The U.S. Eximbank provided the Algerian Bank of Development with a $ 9.4 million credit line for the construction of 26 wheat conditioning stations. On the other hand, the loans provided by the International Bank for the Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) rose from $ 50 million in 1975 to $ 150 million in 1976, reaching more than $ 200 million in 1977 with American firms taking the lion’s share of the Algerian lucrative market.

With the hurdle of Vietnam now out of the way, the Algerian president could call in the English-language press for relations of friendship and true cooperation based on frankness and trust and free from any complexes. But soon Western Sahara became the most pressing issue in the region and was to dominate the U.S.-Maghreb relations from the mid-seventies onwards. A series of other events in the international scene contributed to highlight the differences that brought the United States and Algeria apart once again. The Camp David Accord and the ensuing peace treaty between Egypt and Israel were denounced by the Algerians as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Also, the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel was seen as a further support of the United States to Israel. On the other hand, the Americans were outraged by Algeria’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its abstention in a U.N. resolution condemning the U.S.S.R. Nicaragua was another source of friction as the Algerian support to the Sandinista revolution was seen as a vexing challenge to U.S. interests in the region.


It became increasingly clear that two interrelated factors dogged the U.S. Algerian relations: the first was that these relations could not develop independently from regional or international conflicts; the second, a consequence of the first premise, was that the considerations affecting those relations were determined by the crises of the moment rather than long-term strategies.

In January 1981, thanks to Algeria’s crucial role as intermediary, the 52 American diplomats and marines of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were released after they had been taken hostage and held for 444 days by a faction of Iranian Marxist radicals. The Carter administration had tried various means to get the hostages free. It halted the shipment of military spare parts to Iran; it deported Iranian students studying in the U.S.A.; it put the embargo on oil import from Iran; it froze Iranian assets, all to no avail. A commando rescue operation ordered by President Carter ended disastrously when two helicopters collided over the Iranian desert, killing eight members of the rescue team. The good offices mission of the Algerian government to broker the release of the American hostages was the last attempt taken by a terribly weakened incumbent president. The success of the operation saved his face but not his presidency. The Reagan Administration took great care to distance itself from the whole affair which it considered to have been a painful and humiliating episode inflicted on the nation. The Algerian mediation received minimum media coverage and faded quickly into oblivion. The authorization to sell six C-130 transports and military vehicles to the Algerians did hardly reflect a change of policy towards Algeria. And indeed, soon after taking office, Ronald Reagan authorized the delivery of M-60 tanks, OV-10 as well as F5-E aircrafts to Morocco. The fact that the arms sale had been approved by his predecessor and was due to be delivered in 1981-82 did not attenuate the American snub and as a consequence the relations between the two countries took a plunge again.

Economic pressures were also brought to bear on Algeria in areas that were very sensitive to the country. A serious conflict arose in July 1983 when the American administration required Panhandle, the major importer of Algerian liquefied gas, to renegotiate a lower price than the one set in the 1976 contract signed with SONATRACH. The Algerians, quite predictably, rejected the new American conditions. The Algerian refusal to give in to American demands led Panhandle to suspend its takings of gas, resulting in significant losses in export revenues for Algeria. Once again, the confrontational nature of the U.S.-Algerian relationship was seen to have prevailed. The atmosphere improved again after the arrival at the head of the State Department of George Shultz who appeared to have a less negative image of Algeria than his predecessor. First, the Assistant Secretary of State Eagleburger visited Algiers and was followed by a delegation of Congressmen. But the most important visit was that of Vice-President George Bush in September 1983, the first American official of that rank to visit Algeria. The Vice-President’s remarks to an audience of Algerian diplomats and senior officials at the Ecole Nationale d’ Administration (ENA) no doubt contributed to change the atmospherics. The swing of the pendulum towards better relations with Algeria was also the result of King Hassan’s decision to sign an agreement for a federal union with Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, a country blacklisted by the U.S. for “sponsoring terrorism”.


The invitation to President Chadli Bendjedid for a state visit to Washington in April 1985, was one of the ways the U.S. Administration signalled its displeasure to the Moroccan King. Washington accepted to include Algeria in its program of military aid. But even though U.S. military aid to Algeria increased from $ 52, 000 in 1986 to $ 150, 000 in 1990, it never matched the military aid given to Morocco which amounted to nearly $ 41.5 million in 1989 or that of Tunisia which amounted to about $ 31.5 million for the same fiscal year.

A cultural cooperation agreement was signed and a mixed commission of commercial, economic and technological cooperation was set up. The U.S. which was now the first customer of Algeria for its purchase of crude oil reduced its commercial deficit by important deliveries of wheat at subsidized prices. Algeria also ordered in 1988, three Boeing 767 to reinforce its national airline fleet, a barter transaction that was partly paid with hydrocarbons. However, the warming of the relations which followed Chadli’s visit to the U.S, did not outlast the return of Morocco to the American fold; as a result, the pendulum swung almost naturally towards the U.S. traditional ally again.

Algeria’s crisis, 1992-2001

In 1986, the Algerian government was confronted with a dramatic fall of the oil revenues combined with the effects of a soaring foreign debt. The collapse of crude oil prices which fell by more than two-thirds on world markets precipitated the Algerian economy in a profound crisis that led to increasing popular discontent through the late 1980s. A deep dissatisfaction particularly among the unemployed youth with the government failure to address the social and economic problems, together with deep-seated frustrations with the system in place triggered off the violent riots of October 1988. The unprecedented demonstrations of popular anger and urgent calls for fundamental transformations of the system forced President Chadli Bendjedid to move away from single-party rule to pluralistic democracy. Among the host of new political parties and movements which emerged, the most important was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party that was allowed to run for the provincial and municipal elections of June 1990, winning control in 32 of the country 48 districts or provinces and capturing a majority of the municipal councils.

The Americans did not seem to be particularly concerned with the rise of Islamism in Algeria. The Bush Administration at the time was far more preoccupied by what was afoot in the Middle East as Saddam Hussein’s army prepared to invade Kuwait. Within days of the U.S. deadline for using force, Algeria made a last-minute peacemaking attempt, but the American President had by that time, set his mind on military intervention.

For the Algerian citizenry, the images of the U.S air raids and bombing of Baghdad carried live on CNN were revolting. On balance, the brutal chastening meted out to the Iraqi populations by the U.S. forces, exonerated Saddam of his ill-advised aggression against Kuwait.


The Gulf war, on the other hand, demonstrated to the Americans which countries and allies they could rely on in the Arab world. King Hassan II was actually one of those. His position as a valued intermediary in the Arab-Israeli conflict was reinforced by Morocco’s alignment with the coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War. Once again, an external regional crisis that did not involve Algeria directly, was adversely affecting her relations with the U.S.

The Americans showed only limited interest in the effort of political liberalization taking place in Algeria. A year and a half after its landslide victory in the municipal and province elections, the FIS won the first round of the parliamentary elections held in December 1991, gaining 188 of the 230 seats in contest. The Islamists, who did not believe in parliamentary democracy, had made it clear that once in power there would be no more multi-party elections, as the state would thereafter be governed under Sharia or Islamic law. Fears of an impending take over of the country by an Islamist dictatorship led the militaries to the cancellation of the electoral process in January 1992.

The U.S. reaction to the cancellation of the second round of parliamentary elections revealed an awkward wavering about the issue. On 13 January, the United States issued a statement condemning “the military takeover”. Twenty-four hours later, the Department of State retracted the statement, and called for a peaceful solution, dropping the condemnation of the “coup”.

In early 1992, militant Islamists formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), founded by Algerian veterans returning from the war against the Soviet in Afghanistan. Rejecting any negotiated solution with the government, the GIA embarked on a fierce terrorist campaign of indiscriminate violence targeting francophone journalists, intellectuals, teachers, academics, as well as secular opposition and religious leaders with whom it disagreed. In September 1993, it issued an ultimatum for foreigners to leave the country and organized attacks that aimed at discrediting the Algerian regime and depriving it from any foreign support. The years between 1993 and 1997 are amongst the darkest in Algeria’s tragic history. On the eve of Christmas, 1994, four GIA terrorists hijacked an Air France aircraft to Paris with over 200 passengers on board that they planned to explode over the French capital. The crisis came to an end 54 hours later, after the hijackers had shot dead three passengers in cold blood while the plane was still on the tarmac in Algiers. The flight was allowed to leave and was then diverted to Marseilles where a French special anti-terrorist unit stormed the plane while it was refuelling, killed the terrorists and rescued the passengers and crew. In retaliation, four White Fathers, a religious community with a longstanding presence in Algeria were assassinated at Tizi Ouzou on 27 December 1994. In four further attacks, a Marist Brother and six nuns were killed by the GIA. Two of these Sisters were killed in Bab el-Oued, a populous suburb of Algiers where they served the poor, and where Ali Belhadj, an Islamist preacher had contributed much, through his fiery sermons, to the radicalization of the disaffected youth.


In the summer of 1995, the GIA exported its indiscriminate terrorist attacks abroad, making its global jihad a reality by launching a bombing campaign against France for her support of the Algerian regime. Between July and October 1995, the GIA admitted responsibility for a series of eight attacks in France that had killed eight people and wounded 130. The most spectacular of these acts of terror was the bombing of a crowded Paris commuter train at the Saint Michel station that wounded 29 people.

In late March 1996, a GIA unit abducted seven Trappist monks in their monastery of Tibhirine, at the foot the Atlas Mountain, 60 miles to the south of Algiers. Two months later, parts of their mutilated remains were discovered. The GIA claimed responsibility for the killing but the actual circumstances of their death are still unravelled to this day. In August of the same year, Pierre Claverie, the Bishop of Oran and ardent supporter of the Islamo-Christian dialogue, was assassinated in a booby trap explosion at the entrance of his house.

The campaign to undermine the Algerian secular regime included mass killing of innocent civilians. Between 1993 and 1997, the GIA conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres, sometimes wiping out entire village communities in its areas of operation, particularly in what came to be called the “death triangle”, a few miles to the southwest of Algiers. The Rais and Bentalha massacres of August-September 1997 were among Algeria’s bloodiest atrocities in the 1990s, making more than 400 victims. The day after the Bentalha massacre, an Algerian photograph working for AFP took a photograph of a woman outside the hospital where the victims of the massacres had been transported. The picture of that mother who had lost three of her children in the killing was featured on the front page of many newspapers and magazines around the world. Dubbed by the journalists the “Bentalha Madonna”, the photograph of that grieving mother became the iconic image of a country in the throes of a brutal civil strife.

U.S. reactions to the rising tide of Islamist violence

The Clinton administration chose to keep its distance from the beleaguered Algerian regime. It claimed to differentiate between “moderate” Islamic groups that rejected violence and “Islamic radicals” or Islamists who employed violence and sought to impose Islamic rule by force. U.S. officials were insistently making the point that dialogue with “moderate” Islamists as well as improved social conditions should replace military expedients. The essence of that position was spelled out by Edward Djerejian, Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs in an address delivered at the Meridian International Centre, Washington, D.C., on 2 June 1992. He observed that the danger was not the religion of Islam but extremism and fanaticism, adding that political extremism could be religious or secular in nature, in a clear allusion to the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, perceived as the real threat that the U.S. should work to confront. That position was reasserted by Robert Pelletreau who took over from Djerijian in 1994. In a statement before the Subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 28 September 1994, the former Assistant Secretary of Defence apportioned responsibility for the rising cycle of violence and counter-violence in Algeria between the “regime’s security forces” and what he called the “armed insurgents”.


Washington continued to press the point that an all-out military solution was doomed to fail and that the only successful course was to negotiate with opposition groups including the Islamists. As the security situation worsened and foreign expatriates became targets for the armed groups, contingency plans were made by the Pentagon for an emergency evacuation of the U.S. citizens, a dramatic action that reflected the American bleak diagnosis on the Algerian crisis.

The first Clinton administration also ostensibly avoided high-level diplomatic contacts for fear of being seen to support the regime. Disapproving neutrality characterized U.S. policy toward Algeria during that period: most U.S. policy-makers and their political analyst advisers were convinced that the coming of Islamists to power was inevitable. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes made in Iran, U.S. Officials adopted a more accommodating policy toward what they considered to be “moderate” Islamists. Washington adopted then two different but complementary approaches: engaging a dialogue with the Islamist Salvation Front and distancing itself from Algerian regime. The dialogue with FIS was designed to establish good relations with the Islamists should they come to rule the country. To this end, Anwar Haddam, a leading representative of the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) was given a residence permit when he arrived in the United States late in 1993 and was allowed to pursue his political activity there in relative freedom. U.S. Officials made no secret about it. In a Congressional hearing to the Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mark Paris, then Acting Assistant Secretary of State of Near Eastern Affairs confirmed reports that U.S. officials had held meetings with exiles members of FIS. The presence of a FIS spokesman in Washington became a festering thorn in the flesh of the Algerian government. It also provoked the anger of the Algerian civil society and accredited the idea, notably among the secularists, that the U.S. was supporting the Islamists as an insurance policy that it hoped would ingratiate it with the Islamists should they come to power. U.S. officials vigorously denied it but it was no less true that these contacts suggested that the Americans were keeping all their options open in case of an Islamist takeover in Algeria. As late as 1996, when the tide was turning against the Islamists, a study entitled “Algeria: the Next Fundamentalist State?” was published by Graham E. Fuller (15). Written originally for RAND, a research centre sponsored by the United States Army, it all but predicted the inevitability of Islamic fundamentalism taking power in Algeria. A staunch opponent of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory, Graham Fuller maintained that Western coexistence with ideological Islamist regimes was a political option which deserved serious consideration, adding that support to the embattled Algerian secular regime could dangerously undermine U.S. interests by making it more difficult for Islamists to come to power in Algeria.

In January 1995, the legal opposition and the banned Islamic Front met in Rome under the auspices of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay group. The seven opposition parties that attended the Rome meeting signed a declaration that set conditions under which negotiations with the Algerian government could begin.


They called for the legalization of the FIS, the release of its leaders, the lifting of the state of emergency and for multi-party elections. The Clinton administration supported the Sant’Egidio initiative and saw in the common agreement that was reached, a possible basis for a political solution of the crisis. The Algerian government rejected the Rome Accord, accusing those Western governments who supported it of interference in their internal affairs. There was a hardening of official attitudes on both sides. The Americans made it quite clear that they had strong reservations about the Algerian government’s plan to continue actions against the armed Islamist groups while pushing ahead with the presidential election set for November 1995. The U.S. policymakers were well-aware that they lacked the traditional levers to bring round the Algerian rulers to their views: Algeria was not one of the recipients of U.S. bilateral aid. U.S. financial assistance had been limited to guarantees provided by the U.S. Export-Import (EXIM) Bank for over $ 2 billion in private bank loans for projects involving American companies in Algeria’s oil and gas sector. The Department of Agriculture had also made available credit guarantees for short-term, private bank loans to Algeria for imports of U.S. agricultural commodities. With the exception of a modest IMET programme of $ 50,000 for 1994, the U.S. gave no military assistance to Algeria. Attempts to bring pressure to bear on the Algerian government were however made through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in April 1995. The U.S. and U.K. representatives were strongly critical of the Algerian government, arguing that conditions were not right for the three-year Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to be approved. It was in fact France’s support and the intervention of French Director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus which tipped the scale in favour of the Algerian request. The EFF was passed but not without the U.S. representative delivering a strong statement at the IMF board meeting in May 1995, warning that economic targets set by the IMF programmes were unlikely to be met in the absence of a political solution (16).

The year 1995 marked, however, a watershed in the sense that Islamist terrorism was becoming a serious issue of U.S. concern. As the security situation in Algeria continued to deteriorate, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) claimed responsibility for the car-bombing of a police headquarters in downtown Algiers in January 1995 that killed more than 40 people. Following the deadly car-bomb attack against the police headquarters in central Algiers, American officials decided to break their contacts with Anwar Haddam whose declarations to the American press, justifying the violence perpetrated by the Islamist armed groups in Algeria were becoming increasingly embarrassing. Nonetheless, the Clinton administration continued to avoid high-level diplomatic contacts with the Algerian government, concerned that such contacts might be interpreted as support for the regime. No senior U.S. official visited Algiers between 1992 and the mid-1996.

In the prevailing climate of violence which characterized the Algerian political scene in the 1990s decade, much attention was directed toward the radicalization of the Islamic movements and the challenges it represented for U.S. interests not only in North Africa, but in the Middle Eastern region at large.


The phenomenon generated a major body of work by such American scholars and long time observers of the largest Maghrebi state as William Quandt, Andrew Pierre, John Ruedy, Robert Mortimer, John P. Entelis, Robert Maley, and Michael Willis . In addition, most of the major American think tanks including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Middle East Program of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Rand Corporation, The Heritage foundation, did much to informing the debate through their conferences, analyses and reports. Their assessments have no doubt greatly contributed to help Clinton’s second administration to re-adjust its policies and response to radical Islam. As early as November 1995, The Heritage Foundation issued a report entitled “The Rising Threat of Revolutionary Islam in Algeria”. Its author, Senior Policy Analyst, James Phillips was strongly recommending in his conclusion to a model of a think tank analysis that “U.S. should work to control and contain Islamists, not to tame them”; that “Washington should resist the temptation to meddle in Algerian politics in a vein effort to ingratiate itself with the Islamists”; and that “the U.S. should focus instead on long-term political, economic and educational reforms, as well as appropriate security measures that can prevent future Algerias”, a warning that the officials in charge of the North African bureau at the State Department could hardly afford not to heed.

A series of combined events resulted in a significant upturn of the U.S-Algerian relations in 1996. First, in November 1995, Algerians had voted in large numbers to elect incumbent President Zeroual with 60% of the vote in Algeria’s first multi-party presidential election. The U.S. administration responded positively to the election of President Zeroual. In December 1995, President Clinton indicated in a letter to the newly elected president that the U.S. was prepared to support him for broadening and accelerating the process of reconciliation to all Algerians who disavowed violence and terrorism. The US-Algerian rapprochement was also in large part aided by the participation of Algeria to the “Summit of the Peacemakers” which was convened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in March 1996. The summit had three fundamental objectives: to put the Palestinian-Israeli peace process back on track again; to enhance security; and to broaden international cooperation against terrorism. The Administration welcomed the Algerian participation and was not long in making its appreciation known. Until then the decision to bypass Algiers in visits to the regions by U.S. officials had clearly signified Washington’s disapproval of the Algerian government policies. Soon after the summit, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau travelled to Algiers where he expressed support for President Zeroual’s commitment to strengthen democratic pluralism in Algeria.

On 16 April, in a statement before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, Pelletreau discussed his recent visit to Algeria and the U.S. policy toward that North African nation. Algeria, he declared, supported the Middle East peace process and was important for regional efforts to enhance security, stability, and peace. Beyond a geopolitical interest in regional stability, U.S. interests also included significant American investments in Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector. Pelletreau finally reported that the U.S. was supporting the reforms to deregulate and liberalize the Algerian economy in both the IMF and World Bank and that the U.S. had agreed to sign a second bilateral debt rescheduling (17).


In December 1996, Anwar Haddam was placed under arrest, and his application for political asylum was rejected. In 1997, the GIA was placed on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. The improvement of the US-Algerian relations also coincided with a re-appraisal of U.S. policy in the Maghreb following the Barcelona Process, launched to improve ties between the European Union and its southern neighbours, across and around the Mediterranean Sea. It marked the starting point of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) which would become known as the Barcelona Process after the name of the Spanish port city where the Euro-Mediterranean Conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs was first held in November 1995. The Barcelona Declaration provided a wide framework for a political and security partnership in social, cultural and human affairs between the member states of the European Union and ten of the countries on the southern and eastern Mediterranean basin, namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and also the Palestinian Authority.

In response to the Barcelona Process to which the United States had not been invited to participate, not even as an observer regardless of its role as a key security actor in command of NATO forces in the Mediterranean, Washington decided to develop a regional policy of its own in the Maghreb. It was in that context that the U.S. launched in 1998 the Eizenstat Initiative, named after Stuart Eizenstat, the Assistant-Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs who engineered it. The initiative which aimed at breaking the European monopoly on the Maghreb, sought to establish a U.S.-Maghreb partnership and set up a free trading zone between the United States and the three Maghrebi countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

As Zeroual’s presidency drew toward its end, U.S. business stake grew as bilateral trade and U.S. investment were expanding despite the continuing violence. There were visits by Algerian members of Parliament to the United States. There were also the visits of high-ranking U.S. and NATO military officials and the joint naval exercises as well as the meeting between Algerian Foreign Minister Attaf and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. On the eve of Bouteflika’s first election in April 1999, trade between the two countries totalled more than $ 3.5 billion annually making Algeria the fifth larger U.S. trading partner in the region while U.S. direct investment in Algeria was $ 3 billion and growing.

Following the election of Bouteflika which had seen a last minute withdrawal of the six other candidates (18), amidst accusations of electoral fraud, Washington signified its displeasure to Algiers by not sending the traditional letter of congratulation to the new president. Furthermore, the State Department asked the U.S. Ambassador in Algiers to inform the Algerian Foreign Ministry that “during a wait-and-see period of one hundred days, the United States would not go forward with high-level political contacts, nor would it approve any military sales or contacts. Economic contacts of direct benefit to the United States, could however, continue uninterrupted” (19).


Notwithstanding the more than reserved attitude of Washington to the election that brought him to power, one of Bouteflika’s first statements shortly after taking office was that he would work on building better ties with the United States. Later in July, Bouteflika met President Clinton when the two leaders were attending the funeral of King Hassan II of Morocco. Although the meeting was brief and not pre-arranged, it was nevertheless significant enough for relations between the two countries to be revivified.

Two months after the presidential election, Bouteflika called a referendum in which the electorate was invited to say whether it approved his “Law on Civil Concord”. The law invited members of armed groups to lay down their arms in return for certain guarantees and qualified amnesty. The Law on Civil Concord was approved by a large majority, giving more legitimacy to Bouteflika’s presidency while strengthening his hand against those in the military hierarchy who were opposed to his “national reconciliation” agenda.

The first sign of a positive response from Washingon came in September 1999, with the visit to Algeria by Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk in which he announced U.S. new stand towards Algeria during a lengthy news conference, asserting notably that Washington looked to Algeria as “a regional force which is able to play a major role” in the Middle East and in the Arab Maghreb. Later that month, another sign of improvement in the U.S.-Algerian relations was the visit to Algiers by Admiral Daniel Murphy, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. He told reporters on that occasion that his visit aimed at strengthening U.S.-Algerian ties and at looking into prospects for future military cooperation. That visit was followed in December 1999 by Eizenstat’s colleagues, Robert Mallet and Molly Williamson from the Department of Commerce as well as James Harmon, the president of the U.S. Eximbank who travelled to the region as part of the US-North African partnership. They met with their government counterparts and business people in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to get a first-hand look at the market, the needs, and the opportunities for possible ventures. Shortly after the visit, Washington promised investment in Algeria worth $ 350 million, and the World Bank also appeared more receptive to Algeria’s loan requests.

Bouteflika, on the other hand, fully exploited his experience of foreign affairs to orchestrate Algeria’s return to the world stage. As Interim President of the OAU, he hosted in July 1999 a successful summit of African leaders in Algiers, and in September, as President of Algeria and President of the OAU, he addressed the U.N. General Assembly. He also tried to re-establish Algeria’s influential role by attending mediation efforts in various trouble spots. In the Horn of Africa, his special envoy, Ahmed Ouyahia, was working hand in hand with former National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, to bring to an end the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. That cooperation was crowned by the signing of a Peace Agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea on 12 December 2000 in Algiers. Finally, along with President Obasanjo of Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Bouteflika launched in 2001 the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), of which he was one of the initiators and a most enthusiastic proponent.


As Clinton’s second term drew to its end, U.S-Algerian relations were certainly revitalized but there were still too many obstacles to this relationship. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was still an irritant, and there was resentment against the U.S. support for Israel. There was also the continuing issue of the Western Sahara, where the U.S. had consistently refrained from exerting too much pressure on Morocco for fear of destabilizing their long-standing North African ally. U.S. officials were responding positively to Bouteflika’s national reconciliation agenda while often at the same time expressing frustration at the slow pace of the economic liberalization and the necessary reforms.

In the course of Bouteflika’s second term, the Algerian government announced measures that tightened the investment regime, raising doubts over its commitment to implementing market-based reforms. In august 2008, Algerian officials went a step further and declared that in the future, the government will retain 51 per cent majority stake of any foreign investment project in Algeria. U.S. oil companies had since 2004 concentrated their attention and influence on having the Algerian government privatizing its petroleum sector, a goal that seemed to be achieved when the new petroleum law was issued in March 2005. The new law drew serious objections by the General Algerian Labour Union (UGTA). The new legislation was overturned, preventing foreign monopoly of Algerian oil and gas resources. Washington’s response to that setback came out shortly when the U.S. State Department released an unflattering report on human rights in Algeria. The seesaw pattern that had long characterized the U.S-Algerian relationship was once again seen to be reproduced.

The U.S.-Tunisian relations

Quite unlike the U.S.-Algerian bumpy relationship, the United States and Tunisia have enjoyed a steady and close partnership since the North African country’s independence in the 1950s except for two brief crises, the first one after the 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, and the second five years later during the Gulf war. In each case, however, the crisis was soon overcome, and relations took up again, reflecting solid bilateral links. The relationship between the two countries could be divided into three phases reflecting the evolution of the U.S. engagement toward Tunisia over the past fifty odd years.

The first phase, 1957-1984

During that first post-independence phase, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided almost one-sixth of the income of the Tunisian economy.

On 20 March 1956, the French and Tunisian governments concluded a Protocol of Agreement recognizing Tunisian independence. The United States government promptly recognized the new independent status of Tunisia on 22 March. The relations between the two countries have been unusually close with no major bilateral problems. They suffered briefly after the 1985 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, and during the first Gulf War, when Tunisia objected to U.S. intervention following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. But after each crisis, relations warmed again and returned rapidly to normal.

In the early years of its independence, under the leadership of Bourguiba who made a point of knowing personally all the American presidents from Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, Tunisia was one of the major beneficiaries of U.S. economic and technical assistance under a bilateral agreement signed on 26 March 1957. The programme made provision for $ 5.5 million to be made available to Tunisia before the end of the United States fiscal year on 30 June, 1957 in addition to the earlier grant of $ 6.5 million in emergency wheat. Up to $ 5 million was to be given in the form of commodity credits. Proceeds from the sale of such commodities in Tunisia would be used to support projects and activities in the Tunisian development budget. Approximately $ 500,000 could be utilized for individual technical cooperation projects. On the subject of U.S. economic assistance to Tunisia as well as to Morocco, the French government was given prior assurances that U.S. aid would be supplementing rather than replacing French economic assistance.

The suspension of French aid to Tunisia in May 1957 for continued assistance to the Algerian nationalist cause brought Bourguiba to call into question the full range of economic relations established by the Franco-Tunisian Conventions of 1955. The rift between the two countries posed a difficult problem for the United States whose budgetary limitations did not allow them to supply more than a fraction of the French contribution, which had run to about $ 45 million a year. It was clear that the Americans had every interest in bringing about a Franco-Tunisian rapprochement and persuaded both sides from formal abrogation of the 1955 Conventions.


In September 1957, a border incident where French troops crossed into Tunisia and attacked a small Tunisian army unit, brought the Tunisian government to urgently seek small arms and ammunitions that France had refused to supply, always linking them to Algeria. Further requests to get them from Italy or Belgium had equally failed, both countries having considered a supply of arms to Tunisian forces as “unfriendly” to France. To prevent the Tunisians turning to the Soviet bloc for arms, the U.S. decided to provide them with a limited quantity of small arms and ammunition. The Americans hoped also that by associating the U.K. government to the operation, they would avoid a bilateral confrontation with the French. But far from halving responsibility, the Anglo-American action was strongly denounced by the French government and media, reinforcing the notion of an Anglo-Saxon plot against the interests of their most important ally in matters vital to it (20).

In the meanwhile, the tension along the border worsened as Algerian FLN continued military build-up in Tunisia and used the territory for military activities and as base for attacks against French forces. On 8 February 1958, French military aircraft launched a raid against the Tunisian border village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in reprisal for the shooting down of a French plane over Algerian territory by anti-aircraft fire from the Tunisian side of the Algerian-Tunisian border. The U.S. was seriously concerned by the effects of the attack not only in Tunisia but throughout North Africa. The proof of Military Assistance Programme (MAP) equipment in the French bombing when it materialized was an embarrassment to the U.S. government and further increased the adverse effects of the incident, notably the likelihood of its exploitation by the Soviets. It became critical for the Americans to help resolve the French-Tunisian conflict. On 17 February, the Department of State announced that the United States had offered its good offices in conjunction with the United Kingdom, to assist the Governments of France and Tunisia to settle the outstanding problems between them. Deputy under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Robert Murphy, was sent to Tunis, Paris and London. By mid-March, Murphy and Harold Beeley, his British counterpart, had worked out the basis of an agreement. The acceptance of its recommendations by the French Prime Minister precipitated the demise of his government which fell on 15 April 1958 on a vote of no-confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, amidst outcries that the United States intended to supplant France in North Africa. Events reached a crisis stage in Algeria on 13 May 1958, when mobs of French settlers invaded the seat of government and proclaimed a Committee of Public Safety with General Massu as its president. In Paris, the newly invested government was unable to cope. Prime Minister Pfimlin submitted his resignation on 28 May. President Coty announced the following day that he had asked de Gaulle to form a government.

The worsening of French-Tunisian relations since the Sakiet raid resulted in the withholding of French payments of any of the aid promised before the incident. Tunisia was now faced with a $ 30 million deficit in its development budget.


The $ 10 million allocated to Tunisia as Special Economic Assistance for fiscal year 1958 proved insufficient and had to be increased to $ 15 million. For the next four years, due to the effect of the Algerian conflict, Tunisia relied heavily upon the United States for economic and military assistance. Bourguiba’s endorsement of U.S. action in Lebanon in July 1958, and his reaffirmed commitment to the West, as well as his forthright refusal to espouse position of non-alignment constituted important support for the basic orientation of United States foreign policy, particularly in the light of recent developments in the Middle East. Furthermore, given Tunisia’s precarious economic position as well as internal difficulties with pro-Nasser elements, it was essential for the U.S. administration to strengthen Bourguiba’s hand. While appropriation of $ 14.5 million for fiscal year 1959 was not yet passed by Congress, the U.S. ambassador was exceptionally authorized to offer immediate economic assistance to finance Tunisia’s most pressing economic needs and urgent arms requirements. In response to that offer, the Tunisian government asked the United States to equip two battalions of the Tunisian army which, though in uniform and partially trained, were wholly without arms. In September 1958, the French government which had previously opposed any supply of U.S. arms to Tunisia for fear they would end up in FLN combatants’ hands, finally agreed to a delivery from U.S. and U.K. sources of small arms for 2, 400 men. Early in 1959, the Tunisians queried about the possibility to purchase additional arms and military equipment for an army of 20, 000 and to acquire these arms on credit. They also requested economic assistance, including credit to back the new Tunisian currency.

Alleging that U.S. arms sent to Tunisia were being diverted to Algerian insurgents, the French government urged the United States to discontinue arms shipments to Tunisia until these charges were investigated. In the summer of 1959, French and U.S. officials held a series of meetings on the issue. In agreement with the Tunisian government, a U.S. military team had been sent to Tunisia for a survey report. The team had recommended the supply over a period of three year of approximately $ 11.5 million worth of transportation and communications equipment, tanks, armoured cars and artillery to remedy the Tunisian army actual deficiencies.

In November 1959, The White House announced the President’s forthcoming trip to Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, France, and Morocco. After discussions between Tunis and Washington, Tunisia was added to an already crowded President’s programme. On 17 December, Eisenhower stopped briefly in Tunisia for a private working breakfast with Bourguiba at La Marsa (21). On the matter of U.S. aid, Eisenhower assured his counterpart that he would give all consideration to both Bourguiba’s pressing requests for wheat under PL-480 and for additional defence equipment. Eisenhower also offered Bourguiba direct channel for correspondence if he wished to write to him directly, Bourguiba availed himself of that opportunity on 3 October 1960, when he sent his son, Habib Bourguiba, Jr., then Ambassador to France, to deliver a personal message to the U.S. President. In a long written note, Bourguiba addressed the issue of U.S. assistance to Tunisia that he said, was proving insufficient.


Following that appeal, Eisenhower, promptly instructed U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Walter Walmsley, to make available immediately to the Tunisian government $ 10 million in cash out of the $ 20 million that had been earmarked for FY 1961. He also confirmed in a personal letter that sufficient wheat and other surplus commodities would continue to be made available for the work relief and child feeding programmes. The U.S. Development Loan Fund, he added, were actively considering a loan request for the Tunisian Agricultural Development Bank (22).

During the 1960s, Tunisia continued to be one of the few countries to which the U.S. government continued to provide major support under its economic assistance programme. The suspension of all French aid following the Bizerte incident in July 1961 and the nationalization of French-owned farmlands, made Tunisia crucially dependent on economic assistance from the United States. The Americans, on the other hand, who did not want Tunisians to depend too heavily on them, urged the Tunisian government to turn to its natural partners in Europe and to re-establish decent economic relations with France, the former protectorate power. Bourguiba multiplied, during that period, gestures and declarations designed to serve U.S. interests while advancing his own. In African and Middle Eastern forum, Tunisia stood up for moderation and pragmatism. In March 1965, Bourguiba publicly urged the Arab leaders in a speech delivered in Jordan to recognize Israel in return for negotiations in accordance with U.N. Resolution 181 (1947) recommending the partition of Palestine, and Resolution 194 (1948) calling for a return of Arab refugees to their homes. By calling for Arab-Israeli negotiations and by taking the lead of the few Arab states that refused to sever diplomatic relations with West Germany for opening an Embassy in Tel Aviv, Bourguiba was bitterly criticized by the majority of his peers and their public opinion in the Arab world. To the risk of being perceived as a U.S. stooge, he also supported the U.S. on negotiation without preconditions in Vietnam. Tunisia’s forthright stand on all these issues was largely meant to secure maximum U.S. economic support for its next four-year plan.

Bourguiba’s deteriorating relations with Nasser’s UAR and his isolation in the Arab world made him increasingly nervous about a possible move of Nasser in Libya and also about the Soviet-backed military build-up in neighbouring Algeria. The Tunisian government raised on successive occasions the question of U.S. military assistance with American officials, both in Tunis and Washington. In September 1965, the Tunisians presented the U.S. with a $ 100 million shopping list in arms. In November 1965, the Americans eventually accepted, at the request of Bourguiba himself, to send a survey team to assess Tunisia’s security requirements. The report of the Military Survey Team was completed in February 1966. It recommended a $ 26 million military program spread over five years that was meant to provide the Tunisian forces with a minimum of defensive capacity to withstand an external attack. Though drastically cut down, the programme was vetoed by both, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara who recommended just a one-year slice of the programme. In December 1966, more than one year after the request had been made President Johnson finally signed the decision authorizing a one-year $ 5.2 million military assistance programme to Tunisia.


Bourguiba had for several years, made it known to the U.S. that he favoured a security guarantee and the type of assistance from the U.S. that Turkey enjoyed as a member of NATO. He was prepared to offer the U.S. the use of Bizerte naval base in return for such an assurance. The U.S. left the Tunisians in no doubt that they would assist them in the case of external aggression but they made it clear that they were not prepared to provide any security guarantee, treaty or alliance.

Announced for June 1967, Bourguiba’s visit to Washington did not take place until nearly a year later in May 1968. It had been delayed by the heart attack he had suffered in March 1967 and by the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. The latter had triggered off mob demonstrations and attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Foreign Minister Habib Bourguiba, Jr. rushed to Washington on 7 June 1967 to express regrets for the mob action, and to explain Tunisia’s public support for the Arab cause. It was dictated, he explained to Secretary of State Rusk, by the necessity for Tunisia to preserve its credibility in the Arab community and be able to exercise its influence constructively once the war trauma was over (23).

In the late 1960s, the U.S. provided loans at the level of $ 15 million a year along with other economic aid. That aid had to be reduced to $ 10 million in 1968 because of congressional cuts. PL-480 aid, however, continued to be furnished.

During the October 1973 Middle East war, Bourguiba expressed Tunisia’s public support for Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel, and like other Maghreb states, sent troops to bolster the Arab effort. But of greater concern to the U.S., however, was Bourguiba’s flirt with Muammar Qaddaffi over a Tunisian-Libyan union. Bourguiba had also accepted to have the Arab League headquarters transferred from Cairo to Tunis after Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. Again, in 1982, after the PLO was expelled from Lebanon, Bourguiba demonstrated deep solidarity with the Palestinian cause by allowing its leadership to set up its headquarters in Tunisia. This led to retaliatory military and commando operations from Israel on Tunisian territory. In October 1985, the Israeli government decided to make an air strike against PLO headquarters. Eight F-15 destroyed almost the entire PLO complex at Bordj-Cedria, a sea-side locality, situated in the southern suburbs of Tunis. The raid resulted in 68 civilians dead and nearly one hundred wounded, as well as wide-scale damage to civilian buildings. The U.N. Council vigorously condemned Israel as an “act of aggression against Tunisian territory in flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter”. The vote on the text was 14 in favour to none against, with one abstention, that of the United States.

The second phase, 1984-1994.

It was the period when U.S.-Tunisian cooperation was at its highest and when the U.S. helped Tunisia build up its infrastructures from roads, banking systems, educational facilities, to the private sector.

In the mid-1980s, Tunisia was faced with rising unemployment, stagnant economic growth, a growing foreign debt and dwindling foreign exchange reserves. A severe balance of payments crisis in 1986 finally prompted the government to undertake an IMF and World Bank sanctioned programme of structural adjustment reforms. Those reforms were continued throughout the 1990s and enjoyed remarkable success.

On 7 November 1987, Bourguiba was deposed on ground of senility by his recently appointed prime minister and former general, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The non-violent nature of the coup and the smooth rise to the presidency of a man who had received the second part of his training in U.S. military schools was not to displease the Americans. Ben Ali set about liberalizing the political structure, notably by abolishing the life presidency, deciding a large number of political amnesties and allowing greater press freedom. The main Islamic organization, the Hizb al-Nahda (Renaissance Party), however, was not legalized. The government was keen to allow for more political diversity, but was very wary not to allow any space for Islamist opposition groups

The USAID programme remained in place until 1994. Then, after nearly 40 years, Tunisia’s economic and social progress led the country’s to “graduate” from U.S aid funding. During its 35 years in the country, the United States Agency for International Development had made available nearly $ 1.5 billion in low-interest loans, grants, technical assistance, and sales of agricultural commodities to Tunisia. USAID played a major part in the construction of the Tunis airport and other major projects such as the Oued Nebhana Dam, roads and highways throughout the country, and improvements of the water supply network serving Tunisian cities. Tunisia was also the first Arab country to request and to receive Peace Corps Volunteers when the corps was created by President Kennedy in 1961. It started a long cooperation that continued for 34 years and enabled nearly 2, 400 young Americans who actively participated to the development of the country with a particular focus on rural and urban development, vocational education, and public health. U.S. military financing was ended in 1994, but Tunisia continued to be eligible for surplus defence articles and military education programmes.

The third phase, 1995- 2001

During that period, U.S.-Tunisia bilateral trade and private American investment increased substantially. Tunisia was committed to a free trade system and export-led growth, underlined by its accession to the World Trade Organization in 1995.


For the first three decades of independence, Tunisia had followed a socialist economic model with close state control of the economy. Then the balance of payments crisis forced the Tunisian government to switch to IMF and World Bank sponsored liberalization programmes. The successful implementation of the 1987-1994 IMF programme, led to the recovery of the Tunisian economy in the 1990s and into the new millennium.

The second half of 1990s was marked by an increasing private sector involvement in the Tunisian economy. The U.S. government generally gave high marks for Tunisia’s free-market reforms and supported Tunisia’s effort to attract foreign investment through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which extends loans to U.S. firms planning to invest overseas.

Most of the private U.S. economic interest in Tunisia has been in the energy sector with Texaco and Marathon petroleum in the oil exploration and drilling field being the most important U.S. corporations. In the banking sector, the American City Bank has been in Tunisia since 1989, and has continued to play a major role in Tunisian banking. In the manufacturing industry, Packard Electric, a subsidiary of General Motors was employing in 1996 some 1, 500 workers in the assembly of automotive components for export to Europe.

Tunisia enthusiastically supported the Eizenstat Initiative when it was launched in 1998. But the stagnation of relations between Morocco and Algeria, however, proved a stumbling block preventing the materialization of the initiative. One of the conditions for the establishment of a common market between the three North African countries was the re-opening of the Algerian-Moroccan border, closed since 1994. But a far more serious obstacle to Maghreb economic integration was the Western Sahara issue. Without the resolution of that conflict, the Eizenstat Initiative had little chances to materialize.

The U.S.-Libyan relations
The pre-Qaddafi period, 1954-1969

At the end of the Second World War, the Italian colony of Libya was occupied by British and French armies. The British troops held the provinces of Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west where two-thirds of the country‘s total population of only 1,150,000 was concentrated. The French forces controlled the sparsely settled province of Fezzan in the south.

The country was desperately poor having only 2% of its land suitable for cultivation. In the aftermath of the war, Libya’s main source of income was scrapped metal salvaged from the tank battles that had raged across its deserts. The Kingdom of Libya, however, was of strategic value to the U.S. by virtue of its position along the Mediterranean Sea lanes, but even more so because of the important military facilities the U.S. operated in Libyan territory. U.S. influence in Libya had grown steadily since the early years of independence. After 1954, Libya moved even closer to the United States. By that time the United States government had decided that it wanted to establish a major military base of its own in Wheelus airfield, outside Tripoli. On 9 September 1954, the U.S. and Libya signed a Base Agreement granting the U.S. the use of Wheelus Field until 1971. In return for Wheelus, the U.S. promised an average of $ 2 million per year in addition to the other aids it was already providing.

Wheelus Base was a $ 100 million installation which was vital to the defence of the United States. It was what Strategic Air Command called a “post-strike” base, which meant that it was a base where the bombers would return, after their mission for rest and refuelling. It was the only “big base” within a six hundred mile radius of Tripoli, offering also a vital training area for gunnery and rocketry for NATO’s aircraft pilots. When Tripoli established diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. in 1956, Libya assured the United States that Moscow would not be permitted to fly over the Libyan territory. The U.S. and Britain continued to equip and train the small Libyan army, which meant that they could monitor what was going on in the country.

On the other hand, until the late 1950s, the U.K. also wielded considerable influence over the King and the Libyan government, partly because it had been the primary source of external support for the Libyan’s budget. But two years after Suez, the British government had decided to reduce its assistance to Libya from $ 12.6 million in 1958 to approximately $ 3.5 million a year. The U.K. was then reappraising its foreign policy throughout the world with a view to tailoring its foreign assistance commitments to the actual British economic and financial capacities. Furthermore, as Russian influence in Egypt and Syria increased, the British were becoming more concerned with the necessity to secure their interests in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf, so that Libya came then only second in terms of their priorities.

Following the decision of the British to reduce drastically their annual subsidy to Libya, the State Department made it known to the Libyan government that it was prepared to review with it the current economic and financial situation of the country.


Such a move was necessary according to the State Department officials to forestall the possibility that the Libyans might turn to the USSR or Egypt in order to secure the assistance which the British were no longer prepared to provide. Uppermost in the American decision was the military installations of Wheelus Field for which a replacement could not be readily found elsewhere. There was, in addition, the potential danger for NATO forces to consider should Libya fall under Soviet influence. For the U.S. therefore, Libya was highly important not only from their key installations there, but also from their Western alliance viewpoint. Careful consideration needed to be given also to the fact that the Libyan Prime Minister had officially endorsed, in 1957, the principles of the Eisenhower Doctrine. The latter proposed to protect the independence of the states of the Middle East through the extension of security and economic measures meant to reinforce their capacities to resist subversion. And the government of Libya had duly subscribed to these views.

The preservation of the United States strategic interests and positions in the country continued to prevail throughout the next decade. The Wheelus Base Agreement provided for annual payments of $ 4 million through fiscal year 1960 and $ 1 million annually from 1961 through to 1971. But with the awakening of Arab nationalism, the Libyans were considering Wheelus as an infringement on their national sovereignty. The Libyan government, although favourably disposed to the U.S., could not ignore that Nasserism exerted a strong popular appeal which its pro-Western policies could only exacerbate. If the ailing 66-year-old King Idris was undoubtedly pro-American, his principal advisers and possible successors were more nationalistic inclined. Despite its dependence on U.S. and U.K. financial subsidies, Libya could hardly ignore the wave of anti-colonial feelings that swept through the Arab world, and the fact that Libyan public opinion was increasingly pro-Nasserist.

Back in 1959, oil had been discovered in the country. The Libyan oil fields appeared promising and although they were not being developed exclusively by U.S. companies, the big strikes were under the control of American companies. Paradoxically, however, the new-found wealth to which the American oil companies had largely participated, contributed in the end to undermine the U.S. position in Libya: as the country was no longer desperately dependent on foreign aid for survival, U.S. capacity to exercise financial leverage over the Libyan government diminished accordingly.

In 1964, Nasser called upon all Arab nations to expel foreign military bases from their soil. And after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the demand to break military ties with the United States and Britain became even more insistent. In September 1969, while the old, ailing king was taking one of his extended vacations outside the country, a group of young military officers under the lead of Muammar Qaddafi launched a coup. The new government was pledging to end corruption and extend the benefits of oil wealth to all. Public support for the new regime convinced the king to accept guarantees for the safety of his family and to retire to Cairo.

By the late 1960s, however, the Wheelus Air Base had seen its strategic value become less vital since the development of nuclear missiles had replaced bomber bases.


On the other hand, oil had become much more important to U.S. interests in Libya, so much so that American officials decided not to threaten their economic return over the issue of their military facilities in Libya. So in December 1969, while the Wheelus base agreement had still two years to run, the U.S. agreed to vacate the facility which was actually closed in 1970.

U.S-Libyan confrontation, 1970-1986

Although an admirer of Nasser and a left-leaning Arab nationalist, Qaddafi was wary of Soviet expansionism in the region. His opposition to communism at home and abroad, in his early years in power at least, gave U.S. officials every reason to think they could do business with him. However, the support they gave him at first, was not to last. Relations between the United States and Libya quickly deteriorated as the new regime challenged the status quo throughout the region and the world. Qaddafi’s public support for a wide variety of revolutionary movements many of which were involved in armed insurgencies, his hostile positions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and continued criticism of the U.S. policy in the Middle East contributed to the steady deterioration of the U.S.-Libyan diplomatic relations. But it was actually Libya’s alleged involvement in international terrorism which brought the two countries on a collision course. Washington severed ties with Tripoli in 1981, accusing Qaddafi of supporting terrorism.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan had pledged, in a challenge to Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, never to give in to terrorism. Beyond his verbal attacks on Israel, on the United States policies in the region, and on Arab pro-western regimes, Qaddafi had allegedly provided sanctuary to Palestinians of the Black September movement who were involved in the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

Libya had long claimed sovereignty over the Gulf of Syrte which, since 1973, it had considered as part of its territorial waters. Beyond that, Libya claimed another twelve nautical miles of territorial waters, a claim which the United States refused to recognize. Under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. forces were ordered not to challenge Libyan forces by penetrating into the claimed territory even after the burning of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli by demonstrators in December 1979. The Reagan administration came in office determined to take action against Libya. On 6 May 1981, President Reagan ordered the closing of the Libyan People’s Bureau in Washington (24), and twenty-seven Libyan diplomats were expelled from the United States for supporting terrorism. In December, the president called on some 1,500 Americans citizens still living in Libya to leave the country. In March 1982, oil imports from Libya were embargoed and technology transfer banned. It was not clearly established how much responsibility Qaddafi actually had in the terrorist incidents that grew increasingly frequent and bloody during the 1980s. But by his boasting posture and provocative anti-American statements, Qaddafi made himself an easy political target for the Reagan administration. So following the hijacking of an American TWA airliner and the terrorist attacks on the El Al airline counters at Rome and Vienna airports, the Americans decided to retaliate.

U.S.-Libyan hostility, 1986—1999

In January 1986, Reagan declared a national emergency with respect to Libya, breaking all economic relations with the North African country and freezing Libyan assets in the United States. Although Libya’s involvement in these attacks was not irrefutably established, further steps followed. In March 1986, the president ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to engage in manoeuvres just off the Libyan coast. The American “probing” of the 12-mile limit of Libyan territorial waters provoked the Libyans to hit back. They fired a couple of missiles that landed far from any U.S. targets but it was enough for the U.S. forces to attack Libyan missile sites, radar installations, sinking two patrol boats and severely damaging a third one. Seventy-two Libyan sailors were drowned in the assault.

On 5 April, a bomb ripped apart a night club in West Berlin, known to be patronized by United States service personnel. The explosion killed two American soldiers and wounded more than two hundred other persons, including scores of American service men. The Reagan administration quickly designated Qaddafi as the culprit and ordered an air raid against Libya in retaliation. On the night of 14 to 15 April, U.S. F-111s based in Britain joined American aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean for a series of air strikes on Tripoli, Benghazi, and bases used by the Libyan military. At least 100 people died in the attacks, many of them civilians in what Washington claimed to be a “surgical strike”.

The American bombing of a country with which the U.S. was not at war sparkled considerable reprobation around the world, which in turn triggered a backlash in the United Stated against the ”Euro wimps”, notably the French who had refused to authorize the U.S. planes from Britain to fly over their territory on their way to Libya. The bombing also triggered off a series of terrorist actions on American diplomats and citizens in Sudan, Yemen and Lebanon.

In 1988, the Libyans were accused for being responsible for the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland which claimed 270 lives, in one of the deadliest attacks prior to 9/11. In 1991, a U.S. grand Jury indicted two Libyans – Liamin Khalifa Fhimah, former manager of the Libyan Arab Airlines office in Malta, and Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, a high-level intelligence officer – for the Lockerbie bombing. A British court soon followed suit. In 1992, the U.N. Secretary Council imposed its own sanctions on Libya, demanding it hand over the Lockerbie suspects. The U.S. and U.N. sanctions which included a flight ban that practically closed Libya’s airports led to Libya’s political and economic isolation for most of the 1990s. Both Bush Senior and Clinton administrations treated Libya as a pariah state even though the Libyans kept sending signals that they desired to rejoin the international community.

In April 1999, Libya eventually met one of the U.N. Security Council resolutions by accepting to surrender the two Libyans who were suspected to have been involved in the bombing for trial by a Scottish court seated in the Netherlands. One of these suspects, Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, was found guilty (25); the second was acquitted and set free.


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington, Libya denounced the terrorist action and eagerly provided information to the U.S. government about terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda. Many of these groups had actually long opposed the regime in Tripoli. With these new developments, the possibility of a normalization of the U.S.-Libyan relations was no longer ruled out, even if it proceeded at a cautious, step by step pace.


(1) Memorandum from the Acting Secretary of State to the President, Washington, 22 September 1959, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958- 1960, Vol. XIII, pp. 789-791.

(2) Telegram 2481, from the Embassy in Morocco to the Department of State, 18 May 1969.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL MOR-US.

(3) National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970-73, POL 15-1 Mor.

(4) The strength of the force as of 31 October 2009 represented a total of 242 uniformed personnel including 20 troops, 6 police officers, 216 military observers.

(5) Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Algeria, Washington 13 January 1964, FRUS 1964-68, Vol. XXIV: Algeria 6, p. 3.
http:// www.state.gov/about_state/history/ vol_xxiv/b.html

(6) Ibid., p. 4..

(7) Memorandum from Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council staff to President’s Special Assistant (Rostow), Washington, 17 November 1966.
FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. XXIV: 30, pp. 1-2.

(8) Memorandum from the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson, Washington, 22 December 1966. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. XXIV: 30, pp. 3-5.

(9) Ibid., Editorial note, p. 7.

(10) Brian Glick, War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can About It, South End Press: Boston, 1989, p. 77.

(11) His book The Wretched of the Earth (1968) had just been translated in English. With Marx, Ché Guevara, and Mao Tse-Tung, Fanon’s anti-colonial charge contributed to shape the Black Panthers’ militant radicalism and confrontational strategy.

(12) A live recording was taken on that occasion, and later released by the French BYG/Actuel label under the title “Archie Shepp, Live at the Pan African Festival”.


(13) During the subversive 1960’s, William Klein made various films and feature-length documentaries, many of them on political matters. Mister Freedom (1969) was an irreverent caricature of American foreign policy, “red” paranoia, and right-wing nationalism. Two other of his documentaries featured two eminently provocative African American figures of the moment: boxing champion Cassius Clay in Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1964) and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther, released as a separate film in 1970.

(14) An album containing two DVDs, “Festival Panafricain d’Alger” and “Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther”, re-arranged by William Klein was released by Arte Editions, France, on the occasion of Algiers’ Second Panafrican Festival in 2009.

(15) Graham Fuller, Algeria, The Next Fundamentalist State? RAND Monograph Report, MR-733-A, RAND Corporation,1996.
http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph reports/MR733.html.

(16) The IMF provided a $1 billion standby credit in April 1994 for rescheduling Algeria’s debt and a $1.8 billion loan in May 1995 to support its free-market reforms. The Paris Club rescheduled $3.4 billion of debt in July 1994, which cut Algeria’s debt service ratio from 75 per cent in 1993 to 30 percent in 1995.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, “Algeria: Country Report”, Second Quarter, 1995, p. 7.

(17) Statement before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asia Affairs of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, by Robert Pelletreau, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, 16 April 1996.

(18) The six candidates who withdrew from the race on the eve of the election were:
-- Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, former Minister of Education under Boumediene;
-- Mouloud Hamrouche, former Prime Minister in Bendjedid government;
-- Hocine Ait Ahmed, the leader of the Socialist Forces Front (F.F.S);
-- Mahfoud Nahnah, the founder and leader of the moderate Islamist party, Movement for a Peaceful Society (M.S.P);
-- Mokdad Sifi, a technocrat who had held several government positions and who had served as Prime Minister in President Zeroual government.

(19) Cameron R. Hume, Mission to Algiers, Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2006, p. 117.

(20) French national daily, Le Figaro, denounced it “as an odious blow by our allies”, echoing the resentment of a stung nation.

(21) Eisenhower gave an account of their conversations in his book of memoirs, The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965, pp.507-508.


(22) Letter from President Eisenhower to President Bourguiba, Washington, 15 October 1960. FRUS, 1958-1960, Vol. XIII, pp. 903-905.

(23) Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Tunisia, Washington, 8 June 1967. FRUS, 1964-1968, Vol. XXIV: 169, pp. 6-8.

(24) Late in the 1970s, Libyan embassies were re-designated as “people’s bureaux” as Qaddafi meant to indicate that Libyan foreign policy was an expression of the popular will.

(25) The Scottish government released al-Megrahi in August 2009 on compassionate ground because he was allegedly diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. He returned to Libya following his release.


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