Standing on the tarmac of Mitiga International Airport on January 26, 2004, and watching an unmarked U.S. C-17 transport plane being loaded with nearly thirty tons of documents and components from Libya’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs was one of the most memorable moments in my diplomatic career. It was the culmination of years of diplomacy that started in the Clinton administration and concluded during George W. Bush’s first term. This nonproliferation success is one example of the many benefits achieved by sustaining a thoughtful diplomatic strategy. Such an approach is sadly missing from the current U.S. laissez-faire attitude toward Libya and the three North African states to its west (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). Instead, tepid statements seem to be the extent of current U.S. strategy, such as the one made by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on August 4. O’Brien noted how “deeply troubled” we are about the conflict in Libya right now.
Drift and neglect have characterized U.S. policy toward North Africa over the past four years. Regardless of the results on Election Day, the next administration needs to take a fresh look at North Africa. Critical issues for the United States and its allies converge in this region, including counterterrorism, democratization, migration into Europe, and trade expansion. Specifically, the next administration should provide support and resources for Tunisia’s transition; it should launch a serious diplomatic effort to start the process of restoring stability to Libya; and it should seek to promote regional economic integration. Active engagement would advance U.S. interests and values, enhance the stability of NATO’s southern flank, and promote U.S. prosperity. [Read more]