Early in President Richard Nixon’s first term, officials monitoring U.S.-North African relations had grounds for some satisfaction. U.S. ties with Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya were firm. Although Algeria had not yet resumed diplomatic relations broken during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, its economic links with the United States were expanding. Yet for all North African governments, friendly or otherwise, the Arab-Israeli issue complicated relations with Washington. The conflict was a major factor in continuing Algerian resistance to reestablishing formal ties with Washington. In Libya, a military junta, pledging internal reform and espousing Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, overthrew the unpopular pro-western monarchy in September 1969. Thereafter, the administration’s concern over Israeli sensibilities influenced its decision not to fulfill its aircraft contract with the Libyan government, to the detriment of U.S.-Libyan relations. In Morocco, Washington was allied with King Hassan, partly for his “moderate” stand on issues like the Arab-Israeli question. Yet as Hassan moved Morocco towards more representative government, he warned that Morocco’s firm support for the United States could change. Even Tunisia, a staunch U.S. ally, pushed Washington for a more energetic pursuit of Middle East peace, but was disappointed.
North Africa: General
The challenge for the North African states was to forge beneficial relations with the United States, the USSR, and France, while still maintaining their independence. Washington’s support of Israel, however, strained North African-U.S. relations. Regional governments pressed the United States to resolve the Middle East crisis and attempted to defuse the issue themselves. In 1969, Morocco hosted two conferences, one Islamic and one Arab, in an attempt to seize the initiative on the Middle East from Arab “radicals” and bolster its fellow “moderates.” Arab nationalists took heart from the Libyan coup in September 1969, and it prompted U.S. officials to reexamine trends and options in North Africa in January 1970.
U.S. analysts concluded that Algeria and Morocco were likely to remain politically stable in the near future, in the latter case due to King Hassan’s tight grip on power. However, in Tunisia, where the ailing President Bourguiba was likely to step down, and Libya, where an inexperienced military junta ruled, the reports predicted political turmoil. Still, without a major Arab-Israel war or western disengagement, analysts saw no significant likelihood of Soviet dominance of the area. The National Security Council (NSC) Interdepartmental Group agreed in 1970 that, to maintain its regional interests, the United States should continue an active relationship with all North African governments, but also welcome a Western European presence. Since U.S. influence was limited by Washington’s close identification with Israel, Western Europe, particularly France, could provide the counterpoise to the Soviets in North Africa.
Although U.S.-Algerian commercial ties were steadily improving by 1969, tensions between the two countries remained. Some U.S. analysts speculated that while Algeria maintained ties to the USSR, France, and U.S. companies, ultimately it might lean toward Moscow. Others trusted Algeria’s ability to play the big powers off against each other while retaining its independence. To Algiers, Washington’s war in Vietnam and pro-Israeli stance posed barriers to the re-establishment of official relations. Yet Algiers also placed high priority on internal economic development and in 1970 sought help from the U.S. government in financing a joint U.S.-Algerian liquefied natural gas project.
In the belief that improved commercial relations could lead to renewed diplomatic ties, the administration allowed the importation of Algerian natural gas in 1971, despite French opposition. In 1972, Washington approved a U.S. firm’s sale of an air defense network to Algiers. With U.S. encouragement, Algeria upgraded the status of its representative at the Algerian Interests Section in Washington in 1970, and President Nixon periodically corresponded with President Houari Boumedienne. Yet Algeria resisted U.S. pressure to resume diplomatic relations, arguing that Washington had made too little progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis. Washington, meanwhile, grew exasperated at Algiers for giving safe haven to groups the United States regarded as terrorist and dissident, such as the Black Panthers, who staged dramatic hijackings of U.S. aircraft in 1972. This issue joined Vietnam and the Middle East as matters hindering the reestablishment of U.S.-Algerian relations in this period.
U.S. officials recognized that the authoritarian and corrupt monarchy of King Idris had an uncertain future, and attempted to distance themselves from a U.S. commitment to the succession of Idris’ son. On September 1, 1969, a group of little known young military officers staged a coup and set up a new government, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which the United States warily recognized. Although its initial statements were measured, the new government was, according to CIA analysts, unlikely to remain so, and would probably insist on U.S. withdrawal from Wheelus Airforce Base. In October 1969, Tripoli requested discussions to terminate the U.S. presence. To protect U.S. interests, particularly oil, Washington agreed to withdraw in mid-1970 from Wheelus.
When Morocco and Tunisia expressed concern at U.S. failure to restore the Libyan monarchy, Washington disavowed the right to save governments from internal threats. More to the point, as internal studies indicated, Washington had limited leverage and at best could work with, and try to influence, the new regime. Contrary to Libyan suspicions, the United States denied involvement in the attempted countercoup against the RCC in December 1969, and even helped thwart several later coup attempts by Libyan exiles. A functioning U.S.-Libyan relationship seemed possible.
To Tripoli, however, the great test of U.S.-Libyan relations was the eight F–5 aircraft which the United States had contracted to sell to the previous regime. When the RCC demanded delivery, the United States deferred a decision, pending a clearer picture of Libyan developments. The arming of Libya, some U.S. officials argued, would antagonize Israel, which might itself demand more aircraft and further destabilize the region. To some in the RCC the United States was too pro-Israeli to be a partner. RCC Chairman Mu’ammer Qadhafi, noting Tripoli’s profound concern with the plight of the Palestinians, warned that the United States would lose the Arabs because of its commitment to Israel. In mid-1970, irritated at the delays from western military suppliers, Libya accepted its first arms delivery from the Soviet Union, while avowing its intention of maintaining its independence and non-alignment.
Meanwhile, as negotiations between the Libyans and the oil industry intensified, the United States concluded correctly that although Libya would bargain hard for better terms, perhaps including 51% control of oil companies, outright nationalization of the oil industry was unlikely. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Ambassador Joseph Palmer believed that Washington should make some effort to accommodate the Libyans on the question of the F–5 sales, which Deputy Secretary of State John Irwin argued could protect U.S. oil investments. The President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger vacillated on the question, initially accepting that no gesture would make the Libyan government less hostile and later agreeing to consider releasing the F–5s in order to protect the oil companies. But in the end Kissinger sided with Secretary of State William Rogers, who asserted that the refusal to sell had not appreciably damaged relations and that the sale would provide no security to the oil companies. The United States continued to refuse to provide new weapons to Libya, without saying so explicitly.
Libya did not nationalize any U.S. companies but in May 1972, it requested a reduction in the size of the U.S. embasy from thirty-five to fourteen. In October, the Libyan Foreign Minister called the failure of the United States to fulfill the F–5 contract the major problem in U.S.-Libyan bilateral relations. Moreover, Qadhafi sent word through the Ambassador that, due to Washington’s refusal to deliver arms to Libya while opening its arsenal to Israel, Tripoli could now be forced to turn to Moscow with more regularity. By December, the Embassy warned that, due to its support for Israel, the United States could expect a new policy of overt discrimination against its interests, and recommended that Washington remove “unnecessary misunderstandings in the area of arms supply.” No change was forthcoming, however, in Washington’s policy of deferring the F–5 question.
Although U.S.-Moroccan relations in 1969 were generally sound, the Arab-Israeli crisis put pressure on King Hassan to lean more towards neutralism and to be more receptive to Soviet overtures. Following the Libyan coup, however, the regime became uneasy at the prospects for regional subversion by hard-line pro-Palestinian elements, and urged the United States to expand its influence in the Maghreb. In his conferences that year, King Hassan tried to preempt “radical” elements under the leadership of Iraq and Egypt and to forge a “moderate” consensus on the Arab-Israeli issue. When Secretary of State William Rogers visited Morocco in February 1970, King Hassan pressed the Washington to impose peace on the Middle East to avoid further upheaval and Soviet infiltration. In June, the King sent a special envoy to Washington at Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s request to emphasize the seriousness of Egypt’s peace appeal. The United States, the envoy urged, should cease arms deliveries to Israel and force it to accept the UN Security Council settlement. Yet while the President was eager to support the “moderates” and show willingness for peace, he viewed Soviet influence on Egypt, not Israel, as the great obstacle to settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In response to critics, King Hassan proposed in July 1970 to end a five-year “state of exception” by drafting a constitution and restoring parliament. These reforms were mostly cosmetic, however, and Hassan retained his royal power. He also hoped to use the controversial U.S. military facilities at Kenitra, nominally under Moroccan control, as a lever for greater U.S. assistance. When a Senate subcommittee referred to the facilities as a “U.S. base,” Rabat seized on the language to demand a higher “counterpart.” Privately, the administration concluded that the United States should attempt to retain access to the Kenitra facilities as long as the political and economic costs were not insurmountable for either Rabat or Washington. Yet while prepared to increase aid, Washington was determined to avoid a quid pro quo for Kenitra.
In July 1971, King Hassan survived a coup attempt by disaffected military officers. U.S. analysts observed that Hassan’s lifestyle and concentration of power placed the King in danger of popular revolt. In the aftermath of the uprising, the King determined to coordinate more fully with Washington, even as the administration hoped to avoid too close an identification with his government. In August 1972, another group of military officers made an unsuccessful attempt on the King’s life. By underscoring Hassan’s shaky prospects, the attack prompted U.S. officials to reconsider policy toward Morocco, including perhaps reducing the U.S. military presence. Given the King’s reluctance to reform, analysts speculated, another plot against him was likely to succeed. For his part, Hassan incorrectly suspected that the United States had been involved in the plot. As he pledged to broaden his government, Hassan warned that the opposition would demand that Morocco assume more control of U.S. bases, consolidate them, and extract higher rent. The NSC’s Senior Review Group concluded that since friendly relations with Morocco were important and the King was still the focal point of authority, the United States should be responsive to his needs and reduce its military presence. Far from disengaging from the King, this maneuver was designed to preserve U.S. relations with his government.
One of the poorest North African countries, Tunisia was also probably Washington’s closest ally in the region. U.S. officials believed that long-time President Habib Bourguiba would shortly retire, and that his unnamed successor was unlikely to be so pro-western. Yet while recognizing that Bourguiba was personally responsible for the warmth of U.S.-Tunisian relations, the administration judged that Tunisia would continue to maintain strong links with Washington. In late 1970, when Bourguiba was diagnosed with arterial brain damage, the administration arranged for the President’s medical treatment in Washington.
The United States saw no need to offer much incentive for Tunisia’s loyalty beyond rhetorical support. In 1969, Tunis pressed Washington unsuccessfully for a more comprehensive military aid package to offset the threat from Moscow and Soviet-armed Algiers, and to show the benefits of the U.S. alliance. The Libyan coup only increased Tunisia’s sense of insecurity. U.S. officials believed Tunis’s fears were exaggerated, although President Nixon voiced personal sympathy for their concerns. When other exigencies forced the United States to make reductions in assistance to Tunisia in 1970, officials were careful to declare U.S. interest in Tunisian security, which “represented the extent to which we have been willing to go in response to Tunisia’s request for a special security relationship with the United States.”
Together with military assistance, another persistent issue in U.S.-Tunisian relations was the conflict in the Middle East. During the Secretary of State’s February 1970 trip to North Africa, Rogers found the Tunisians preoccupied by the Palestinian crisis. Under new Foreign Minister Mohamed Masmoudi, U.S. analysts reported, Tunisia was bringing its policy more into line with that of the “radical” Arabs. In meetings with U.S. officials that autumn, Masmoudi emphasized the importance of U.S. pressure on Israel to achieve a Middle East settlement, and of greater military aid to Tunisia. Both of these steps, the Foreign Minister emphasized, would help to keep the Soviets at bay. On the Arab-Israeli issue, there was little progress. In late 1972, Masmoudi confronted the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, accusing the United States of writing off the Palestinians and becoming wedded to the Israelis, leaving Washington’s Arab friends in an untenable position.
On the military front, Washington attempted to be somewhat more responsive. In 1971, Washington added a modest $1 million to the $3 million military assistance program for Tunisia, with a renewed assurance of the President’s concern. However, the administration declined Tunis’s 1972 request for additional internal security aid, softening the rejection with more development assistance. Concerned that Tunisia was undervalued by the Nixon administration, Ambassador John Calhoun urged the administration to preserve the present relationship by maintaining U.S. programs and agreeing to Bourguiba’s request for a high-level review of U.S.-Tunisian relations. In December 1972, however, Nixon responded to the request with his standard device by again reassuring Bourguiba of the United States’ interest in Tunisia.
The combined effect of the documentation presented in this volume indicates that while North Africa was important enough for the United States to wish to retain the region in the western camp and prevent inroads into the area by the Soviet Union or Arab radicals, North Africa was not a priority for U.S. foreign policy under President Nixon. Therefore, North African demands for changes in U.S. policy towards Israel and the Israeli-Arab crisis, or increased military aid or sales generally, received political but basically non-committal responses from Washington.