Until recently, the countries of North Africa have seemed in a state of political equilibrium. Morocco and Tunisia, both regarded as close friends of the United States, reinforced each other as moderate states with similar outlooks; they served as geopolitical balance across the Maghreb to the stable but ideologically more radical Algeria in between. Libya, erratic and unpredictable, was isolated and could expect to encounter the hostility of the other three if it embarked on any adventures against any one of them. That was the situation until the middle of last year.

On August 13, 1984, without notice to the outside world, the monarch of Morocco, Hassan II, and Muammar Qaddafi, the military strongman of Libya, signed an agreement of unity, joining their separate and separated states in an unlikely alliance. A conservative monarch made common cause with the most radical figure in the Arab world, a man who had been attacking him for the better part of 15 years in the crudest and most violent terms, and who was the bête noir of his traditional American and African friends. At a stroke, Qaddafi’s isolation ended; he had acquired an impressive ally and, if the remarks of various Moroccan officials are to be taken seriously, the paper alliance is turning toward a union of some substance.

This alliance has voided a number of long-standing and comfortable assumptions about who is on whose side in North Africa. Can Tunisia, for instance, still count on Moroccan support against Libya? Algeria, engaged in border disputes with both Libya and Morocco but not concerned about their separate military capabilities, must now consider the possibility of the two combining to pose a serious threat. They have the wherewithal to do so, thanks to Qaddafi’s Soviet-supplied arsenal.

The 1963 border war between Algeria and Morocco, the nine-year-old war in the western Sahara, Libyan attempts to start armed uprisings in Tunisia, and Qaddafi’s intrusions into Chad are all indications of North African readiness to use force in pursuit of national goals. To be sure, King Hassan has given assurances that the agreement with Libya is directed against no one. But the Moroccan military has long wanted to strike at the Saharan guerrilla sanctuaries in Algeria, and Moroccan claims last January that one of their aircraft had been shot down by a missile fired from Algerian territory show that a rationale for military action can be found if needed. Article 12 of the union agreement, which provides that "any aggression against one of the two states would constitute an aggression against the other," could provide the framework for such a joint effort, and Algerian military planners must take this possibility seriously.

In short, the accord between Libya and Morocco has provoked fundamental policy reappraisals. The states of the region, and the United States as well, have had to adjust their basic assumptions about the Maghreb.


The United States has important interests in North Africa. The most obvious is the region’s strategic location along the southern flank of NATO, controlling access to the Mediterranean and the north-south flyway to Africa, both of which are vital to the defense of Europe.

The United States has had a special military relationship with Morocco since World War II, founded on air bases and communications facilities. Today it rests on an access agreement negotiated in 1982 which would permit the United States to use one or more of its old Moroccan bases to stage troops en route to the Persian Gulf in the event of an emergency there. The United States also counts on Sixth Fleet visits to Moroccan ports and on Moroccan cooperation in intelligence matters. It will continue to need military cooperation with Morocco as long as it maintains an active military presence in the Mediterranean. The impact of the union agreement on that cooperation is therefore of great concern in Washington.

The United States also has interests in the other states of the region. Algeria is the most important economically; it is the principal U.S. trading partner, and U.S. firms hold some $2 billion worth of contracts there today. Furthermore, Algeria is a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, largely due to the competence and dedication of its foreign policy establishment and to its support for Third World causes and movements of national liberation.

The Reagan Administration, which had cast tentative eyes upon an improved relationship with Algeria, Morocco’s long-time rival, even before Vice President George Bush visited Algiers in 1983, stepped up contacts after the union agreement, and welcomed Algerian President Chadli Benjedid for a state visit to Washington in April of this year. Almost simultaneously, the Administration decided to make Algeria eligible to purchase U.S. arms under the foreign military sales program.

Tunisia, the smallest of the North African states, has long been considered a model of political organization and evolutionary development. The success of this experiment in moderation is important to the West as a symbol of Westernization and what it can do. Alone of the North African states, Tunisia has never done anything to endanger its friendship with the United States. For it to go under or decay into radicalism would have serious consequences for Western prestige, much as the Iranian revolution did. President Habib Bourguiba, one of the most remarkable leaders of the postwar period, is in his eighties and in uncertain health. The question of the Tunisian succession has been looming for years and, as the day approaches, the possibility of interference by Qaddafi is preoccupying both Tunisian and foreign observers.

Tunisian-Libyan relations have long been uneasy, and Qaddafi’s frequent changes of course provoke understandable anxiety in Tunis. A Tunisian-Libyan joint committee meeting last December issued a communiqué which sounded friendly and cooperative, but it came just after Qaddafi had made ominous remarks about "liberating" Tunisia and not recognizing the boundaries between the two countries. In an extensive interview in April he again referred to the evolution of Tunisia "after the liberation." Qaddafi has already made at least two attempts to send armed dissidents into Tunisia and there is reason to fear he will try again in an effort to exploit the succession crisis when it comes. The union agreement with Hassan may reduce the risks in doing so, for it reduces the likelihood of a Moroccan objection.

Qaddafi still has undiminished capacity for mischief, despite his reduced oil revenues. State terrorism is not all that expensive, and trouble-making among one’s neighbors can be accomplished fairly cheaply if one has few scruples about how it is carried out. There is little the United States can do to restrain Qaddafi. The various economic measures it has taken, including the embargo on Libyan oil imports, have been ineffective because the European powers will not join in. Even though they are increasingly upset by Qaddafi’s actions against Libyan dissidents residing in European territory, they have too many economic interests of their own to protect. Indeed, they are picking up the lucrative Libyan contracts that American companies have had to forego.

The U.S. government may derive visceral satisfaction from the knowledge that it is not financing Qaddafi anymore, at least not directly, and its various displays of force have perhaps made Qaddafi keep his head down from time to time. But U.S. efforts to isolate him have now been further weakened by the opening to Morocco.


The announcement that Hassan and Qaddafi had met in the eastern Moroccan town of Oujda and signed an agreement creating an "Arab-African union of state" came as a disagreeable surprise in many concerned capitals, including Paris and Washington. There was the usual talk of intelligence failures and some speculation about why the American ambassador to Morocco, who was in frequent contact with the king, had not been informed in advance.

From Hassan’s account in a speech to his people a week later, the accord was a surprise to everyone, including himself, when he proposed the idea to a Libyan emissary on July 13. Qaddafi has said as much; the official version, therefore, is that a thoroughly extemporaneous act of personal diplomacy did not allow Hassan time for advance consultation with such friends as the United States and France.

Other signs, however, indicate that this version may be disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last September, Hassan remarked candidly, "Why consult with people you know are going to say no?" Indeed, he had a month from July 13 to let his friends know what was up, but chose not to do so.

There is even some evidence that, despite his disclaimers, he had had a project of union in mind well before the July meeting. Le Monde of September 29, 1984, cited an unnamed senior Algerian official as saying that exactly the same agreement, minus its clauses about mutual defense and a defense council, had been proposed to their foreign minister, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, in May 1984, by the king’s right-hand man, Reda Guedira. Ibrahimi had noted that the agreement had two major lacunae: it failed to take account of the friendship treaty between Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania concluded in 1983, and it did not mention the problem of the western Sahara. The Algerians had then made a counterproposal in June, including a compromise offer on the Sahara. The Moroccan reply, two months later, was the Oujda accord with Libya, which the Algerians took as an affront. This account has been confirmed to this author by a second senior Algerian official.

It is conceivable that, unwilling to accept Algeria’s terms, Hassan decided in haste to unite with Qaddafi on the rebound, but it is unlikely that he would have undertaken something that important without giving it a good deal of thought beforehand. Indeed, he had had at least a month to reflect on the Algerian response before springing his surprise on the Libyans.

The text of the agreement provides for a loose structure of coordinating bodies rather than a government of union. Hassan has described it as an agreement of "cooperation and consultation." The union is to be bicephalous, with Hassan and Qaddafi serving simultaneously as chairmen and making all the decisions. Below them will be a permanent secretariat (which will alternate between the capitals); political, defense, economic and "cultural and technical action" councils; an executive committee; a joint legislature; and a court of justice. The councils, which are consultative in nature, are to study unspecified issues submitted to them by the chairmen, to propose solutions and "prepare useful projects," but they do not have the power to initiate studies or reach decisions. The executive committee is to follow up the decisions of the chairmen and ensure their implementation. These are, thus, advisory and executive, not policy, bodies.

Hassan told Flora Lewis of The New York Times in February that he would soon be going to Libya to sign a series of annexes dealing with the budget of the joint secretariat, economic, training and labor accords, and the submission of disputes to the World Court. As of this writing, he has not yet made the trip, but even if he does go, it remains to be seen whether the administrative machinery will work to any great effect.

Given the wide gulf of historical, cultural, social, political and economic differences between the two countries, not to mention their geographic separation—it is 1,200 air miles from Tripoli to Rabat—there is room for considerable skepticism. Politics makes strange bedfellows in the Arab world, as elsewhere, and given the history of Qaddafi’s erratic reverses, one is tempted not to take this venture seriously. But the difference in this case is that the initiative came from Hassan, not Qaddafi, and given the stakes of the North African power balance, it cannot be lightly dismissed.

Whether or not the various councils and committees ever amount to anything, the fact that Hassan has reached an understanding with Qaddafi is significant because it means the traditional lines of force have been altered. In the closed circuit of North Africa, that means there will be countermoves. Algeria, in particular, sees the union agreement as directed against it, thus requiring some reaction on its part. The vehemence of that reaction will be directly proportional to the effectiveness of the union agreement; Algeria has already responded with increased support for the guerrillas of the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Río de Oro) to counter Hassan’s ambitions in the western Sahara. The renewed fighting in that region which began in late 1984 reflects that support.


Hassan’s motives in concluding the agreement may never be fully disclosed, but we can safely dismiss the notion that he was out to tame Qaddafi. He had his own, very Moroccan, fish to fry. Among these was a pressing need for some economic "oxygen." French sources say Qaddafi has already given, or promised to give, $50 million, but this is unconfirmed, and would be a drop in the bucket in any event. There may be more to come, but Libyan capabilities in this respect are limited because of sharply reduced oil revenues. More important is possible help in other respects, notably petroleum and employment. Morocco imports 160,000 barrels of oil a day, which just happens to be Libya’s current marketable surplus. Large numbers of Moroccans may be able to find employment in Libya. There is also talk of joint economic ventures, which would be important to Moroccan economic development. The Libyans had already set up a Libyan-Moroccan bank before the Oujda accord and there may be more such activities in the works.

Hassan needs all the help of this sort he can get. A prolonged drought, the continuing expense of his western Saharan venture, the drop in phosphate prices, decreased tourist revenues and remittances because of the recession in Europe, the high price of oil which must be paid for in expensive dollars, and the problems generated by population growth have all combined to create a continuing economic crisis. By the spring of 1984, Morocco’s debt-service ratio was a staggering 41 percent, and the annual balance of payments deficit was about $2 billion. In January 1985, a consultative group meeting under World Bank auspices in Paris estimated that Morocco would need $3 billion a year in foreign aid for the next three years.

Morocco’s problem became particularly acute in 1983, when the oil glut led to a reduction in the generous subsidies it had been receiving from the states of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia in particular. The amounts of such subsidies have never been made public, but they may have totaled as much as $2 billion in 1981 and have probably been cut at least in half since then. Meanwhile, the effort in the Sahara, which was thought to add close to $1 million a day to the state expenses in 1978, may today add two to three times that, once inflation and the cost of new Saharan infrastructure are factored in.

The argument is often made that the expenses there do not add much to the fixed costs of maintaining a military establishment, which is furthermore absorbing some of the unemployed and making certain positive contributions in the form of civic action projects and the training of manpower. This argument ignores the fact that the Moroccan military establishment has had to be almost doubled in size because of the Saharan problem (from 85,000 to over 150,000), that it is much more expensive to maintain troops in a state of battle readiness in a remote desert than to maintain them in peaceful garrisons at home, and that the ambitious program of civilian infrastructure projects which the government has undertaken in the Saharan province, as a way to win the hearts and minds of the people, has been very costly. Morocco would have difficulty enough feeding and clothing its population without the Saharan conflict. Adding the latter to its daily bill seriously augments its deficit. Neither the French nor the Americans are prepared to foot this bill, and thus Hassan must look for economic as well as political alternatives.


The union agreement makes no mention of the war in the Sahara, nor of Qaddafi’s earlier commitment to Hassan, given in June 1983 but never made public, to stop arming the Polisario in exchange for Morocco’s abstention from interference with Libyan designs in the Chad. Moroccan officials, including King Hassan himself, say that Qaddafi has kept this promise, and that the cessation of the flow of Libyan arms has been an important factor reducing the effectiveness of the Polisario. Therefore, the common conception is erroneous that the Oujda agreement’s principal rationale was to end Libyan aid to the Polisario. That aid, which had been substantial, had probably ceased a year earlier.

Moroccan officials maintain, however, that one benefit of the union agreement is that it implies Libyan recognition of Morocco’s claim to the Sahara. If Hassan is seriously interested in the political (as opposed to military) value of that recognition, it is testimony to his growing isolation in Africa on the Saharan issue. That isolation has been aggravated, not mitigated, by the union, which looks cynical to many moderate African leaders.

This was not Hassan’s first miscalculation regarding the Sahara. When he boldly announced, in the fall of 1975, that the International Court of Justice had ruled in Morocco’s favor (in fact the court had found that Morocco’s ties with the Spanish, or western, Sahara did not constitute sovereignty), and then sent 350,000 unarmed civilians into the territory to force Spain’s hand, thus effecting an anschluss with this piece of desert irredenta, it was widely hailed as a master stroke. With one bold move he had resolved a vexing problem and had thumbed his nose at Algeria, which had been arguing that it was an interested party and that there should be a meaningful exercise of self-determination for the people of the Sahara.

President Houari Boumedienne of Algeria was furious. He blamed the Americans for giving Hassan a green light and vowed that Morocco would pay dearly for ignoring Algeria. One of his senior advisers told a visiting American official, "We’re going to bleed Hassan white." The instrument for doing this was the Polisario, which had been agitating for independence since the early 1970s. The Algerians gave it logistical support and sanctuary, and by late 1978 the movement had become a serious threat to Moroccan control of the Sahara and southern Morocco.

Since then the threat has been largely contained, thanks to better organization and tactics on the part of the Moroccan army, to better equipment and training supplied by the Americans, the French and others, and in particular to the construction of the Sand Wall. A local Great Wall of China, this encloses large tracts of territory in the Sahara and severely limits the Polisario’s ability to use the long-range hit-and-run tactics which had been the key to its success.

Indeed, the wall has been so effective that Western observers periodically claim the war is all but over. From time to time, however, the Polisario stages large-scale attacks against Moroccan positions, to show that it is still very much alive. It has been particularly active since October 1984, in obvious reaction to the Oujda agreement, and claims to have killed 250-350 Moroccan soldiers between October and January 1985. On January 12, the Polisario shot down a Moroccan Mirage F-1 with a missile which the Moroccans claimed came from Algerian territory. At about the same time it shot down an American-supplied OV-10 near Dakhla, on the coast.

The Polisario is far from finished, and recurrent reports of its demise have all been premature. Polisario effectives are put at only 3,500 by informed Americans in Washington, but the fact that a force that small is tying down some 90,000 Moroccan troops, sheltered behind fortifications equipped with American-supplied sensors and supported by a modern air force, says something about Saharan martial qualities. The Moroccans have been unable to maintain garrisons outside the Sand Wall, and their efforts at search-and-destroy tactics have been largely unsuccessful. As long as the Polisario has a minimum of supplies and can find sanctuary in the deserts of neighboring Algeria and Mauritania, the Moroccans will be unable to impose their will. The same can be said of the Polisario, however: it cannot impose its will on the Moroccans. The latter are going ahead with creation of a new, urban, settled Sahara in the hope that eventually it will make the Polisario obsolete.

Efforts at solving the problem have revolved around two principal approaches: a negotiated settlement involving some sort of territorial or political compromise—partition or local autonomy in the context of a federation—or a referendum on independence or union with Morocco. A series of would-be mediators has failed to promote a negotiated solution and hope has rested for some time on the referendum approach.

Hassan proposed a referendum at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Nairobi in 1981, and that organization immediately accepted it. In fact, all the parties accepted the idea in principle, but it obviously meant different things to each of them and they could not agree on implementation. Opinion is divided on what the outcome of a free referendum would be. My belief is that the majority of Saharans would choose independence, not union with Morocco.

The Algerians and the Polisario have insisted on elaborate arrangements that would prevent Morocco, as the occupying power, from predetermining the outcome of a referendum. A majority of the OAU members feel these differences should be ironed out through direct discussions between the Moroccans and the Polisario, but the Moroccans have rejected that idea publicly, believing it would confer legitimacy on the Polisario, whom they term bandits and mercenaries. (At Algeria’s urging, Moroccan officials have held clandestine talks with the Polisario but, according to Hassan, the purpose was not to negotiate but only to tell the Saharans they were Moroccans and should come home.)

Disagreement within the OAU over this question came to a head on November 12, 1984. Morocco and Zaïre walked out of the organization’s summit meeting at Addis Ababa, after the OAU had seated a delegation representing the Saharan Democratic Arab Republic, the political arm of the Polisario. But they were not joined by Morocco’s other traditional African allies, many of whom were alienated by the union agreement with Qaddafi and some of whom share a growing African sentiment that this Arab problem should not be allowed to distract the organization from purely African problems. The U.N. General Assembly subsequently supported the OAU position by passing a resolution calling for direct Moroccan-Saharan talks; this gave the Saharans and their Algerian supporters an important political victory, but brought the issue no nearer to resolution.

In Moroccan eyes, the obvious key to the impasse is Algeria. If it would follow Qaddafi’s example and stop helping the Polisario, the struggle would be over. The guerrillas would perhaps be able to maintain a very low level of resistance for some time, but would no longer constitute an effective fighting force. When President Boumedienne died in December 1978, the Moroccans hoped that his successor, Chadli Benjedid, would take a more relaxed view of the Sahara and that they could reach a compromise with him. This was not an unreasonable expectation. Benjedid had a reputation as a pragmatist and has lived up to it in many respects; also, the Sahara is not a popular issue in Algeria, as it is in Morocco.

Benjedid seems, however, to be genuinely constrained by ideological as well as practical considerations from making a deal at the expense of the Saharans. To do so would badly tarnish Algeria’s self-image and its reputation in the Third World, and it would give a victory to Hassan. Hopes for a settlement were revived when Hassan and Benjedid met in February 1983 (also at Oujda) and set the stage for an exchange of high-level visits and for resumption of relations, which had been broken when Algeria recognized the Polisario’s Saharan Republic in 1976. But relations were not resumed, since there was no fundamental agreement on the terms of a Saharan settlement.

Meanwhile, Algeria proceeded to negotiate friendship agreements with Tunisia and Mauritania, hailed as a step toward creation of the Greater Maghreb. Morocco was invited to join, but demurred because of the Sahara issue. Libya apparently was not invited because of serious border and political differences with Algeria, and because its involvement in Chad was contrary to the terms of the agreements. The ultimate consequence is the strange realignment we see today.


The August 1984 agreement at Oujda can now be seen as merely a formalization of an alliance that began with a surprise visit to Morocco by Qaddafi in June 1983. At that time Libya was the principal weapons supplier to the Polisario, and could up the ante in the Sahara very easily. Libyan abandonment of the Polisario, on the other hand, would significantly improve Hassan’s chances of effecting a military solution, which had always eluded him, or at least it would make compromise more attractive to the Algerians. Or so the theory must have gone. It has not worked, in part because the Algerians and others took up the slack left by the cessation of Libyan arms supplies to the Polisario, and because Algeria won the parliamentary battles in the OAU and the United Nations.

Even if it develops no more substance, the Oujda alliance is already an important psychological fact. While both Morocco and Libya deny that their union is directed against Algeria, they know very well that Algeria, which sees itself as the most important power in North Africa, cannot take kindly to a new grouping which joins its two regional rivals and changes regional power alignments radically. According to press reports, Benjedid was invited to attend the Oujda meeting, but the Moroccans could not seriously have expected him to participate, since they had not even bothered to reply to the Algerian proposals put forward earlier in the summer. To go to Oujda under those conditions would be to ignore Hassan’s slight, and that is not in the Algerian character.

With this we come to the real motivation at the bottom of the new disequilibrium: it is a question of who rules the Maghreb, and who is in and who is out.

Ever since the 1950s, the states of North Africa have been paying lip service to the concept of unity. While the Arabs as a whole speak of an Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Gulf, the North Africans speak of a Greater Maghreb, or Occident. (There is considerable disagreement among Westerners as to what constitutes the Maghreb, with most French writers excluding Libya. Some Maghrebis do the same, but unity schemes pursued by the Maghrebis themselves normally include Libya, and it makes no sense to talk of North Africa today without it.)

Over the past 30 years very little flesh has appeared on the bones of this Maghreb unity. Like heaven, it remains a much-honored concept, but a lot of talk about going there won’t make it happen. Rivalries and suspicions get in the way, just as they do in the eastern Arab world. Although the eastern Arabs can blame their divisions on the residue of imperialism, because of the way the British and French carved up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire to create separate states, the states of the Maghreb correspond rather well to historical divisions between a western, central and eastern Maghreb. Their rivalries and fears long antedate the coming of the French and the Italians, and they will last far into the future.

This is one reason why unity schemes are greeted with such ambivalence. Ninety-five percent of the Moroccans may vote for unity with Libya because it is a great idea in principle, there may be something in it for them, it will do the Algerians one in the eye, and the king has told them to, but they do not perceive that any of their vested interests are going to be harmed. If their vote meant that they would be accepting governors from their new partner (as was the case with the Syrians in 1958), or accepting Qaddafi’s radical heresies, they would quickly retract it. They are unlikely to surrender a meaningful measure of sovereignty to any supranational concept or body.

For all their common Islamic, Arabic, Berber, Third World, Mediterranean, African characteristics, the states of the Maghreb are jealously sovereign, each guarding its own interests and prepared to concede little to its neighbor. Inevitably, Hassan and Qaddafi must have regarded the Algerian-Tunisian-Mauritanian entente of 1983 as an Algerian effort to isolate them, and in retrospect it is understandable that Hassan responded with an effort to line up Qaddafi on his side, and that Qaddafi, always seeking unity with someone, was willing to play. So now there are two ententes in North Africa, neither one having much substance.

What remains unanswered is why Hassan offered the union first to Algeria, assuming that story is true. If it was not simply a tactical maneuver, perhaps he saw it as a way to undercut the rival Algerian-Tunisian-Mauritanian entente. Then Morocco and Algeria could be the two senior partners dominating a four- or five-power combination. Perhaps he hoped to inveigle the Algerians into dropping the Polisario, or perhaps he was pursuing his idea of a federation as the umbrella which would permit a political settlement in the Sahara. It does little good to speculate, except to demonstrate that there is not necessarily any inconsistency in offering union to both Algeria and Libya. An agreement with the latter might be less attractive in some respects, but it has certain advantages. In particular, it does not appear to involve much in the way of commitments on Morocco’s part.

What, then, was in it for Qaddafi? The most important commitment Qaddafi could have wanted, Moroccan abstention from the Chad affair, had already been given in the June 1983 agreement. He would, however, be tying down that commitment, as Hassan was tying down Qaddafi’s commitment in the Sahara. He would also be striking a blow for the sacred cause of Arab unity. Qaddafi perhaps also hopes to lessen somewhat his own isolation in North Africa and the OAU. Finally, he might refurbish his image in the Western world, given Hassan’s high standing there. He may even have conspired in Moroccan claims that they would be able to moderate (or banaliser, in the words of one Moroccan official) his quirky behavior. Qaddafi has been relatively quiet for some months now, but his failure to keep his promise to the French to evacuate Chad makes hard to understand Hassan’s repeated assertions that Qaddafi is a man of his word.


What, then, are the implications of Oujda for U.S. interests in North Africa? Should the United States simply take the union in its stride and regard it as a minor irritation, or should it consider it a serious blow to stability? The answer depends on whether the agreement leads to an effective union. If Hassan seriously attempts to make something substantial out of it, it will eventually pose bothersome problems for the United States and the other Western powers. In addition to affecting the equilibrium of the region, it will raise questions about the reliability of Moroccan safeguards on U.S. military equipment, and about the viability of treaty arrangements for access to Moroccan bases by U.S. forces in transit.

The Moroccans have given assurances that there is no need to worry, that they are not changing their attitude toward their old friends, but they have severely shaken American confidence. Hassan’s public remarks to the effect that the Americans have overcome their anger show that he has not fully understood the extent and nature of U.S. irritation. His relations with Washington have been affected more than he seems to realize. Aid programs have not been terminated, but there is little inclination to expand them, as they should be if Morocco’s economic problems are to be dealt with effectively.

Although the Moroccans have long shown a willingness to kick over the traces, as when the late Mohamed V, Hassan’s father, began flirting with the Soviets in 1960, Morocco is essentially a status-quo power. Like the United States, its perceived interests lie with stability rather than change. That does not prevent Hassan from undertaking his own radical measures, as in marching on the Sahara, but it does mean that, unless provoked, he will normally support evolutionary versus revolutionary approaches. Almost exactly the opposite can be said of Qaddafi, whose natural predilection is for radical change.

The goals of both these leaders may converge temporarily, but their basic incompatibility will eventually surface over some issue or another. Therefore the union is unlikely to last. The United States should remain alert to the possibility that the union will develop in unfortunate ways, but it should avoid overreacting or doing anything to provoke an unwelcome reaction.

The most important lesson to be drawn from the recent experience in the Maghreb is the importance of not labeling foreign rulers pro-American, as we have Hassan in recent years, and then assuming that they will behave accordingly. In the Third World in particular, no foreign leader can afford to be labeled pro-American if that means he will be serving America’s interests rather than those of his own people. Americans, however, like to personalize relations with foreign states, to place foreign leaders in convenient, over-simplified categories. Like Plato’s dog, they like what they know.

Among the unfortunate results which follow is that the "pro-American" label gives rise to unrealistic expectations on both sides. The local leader expects more support and understanding than he will get, and the Americans expect him to make decisions which may be contrary to his country’s national interests or to his domestic political interests, and to avoid actions which would displease his American friends. The American embrace is often the kiss of death for the local leader. We have seen it happen in Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Sudan, among other places, and we will see it happen again in other states of the Middle East.

The label "pro-American" should be banished from our lexicon. We should seek friendly relations based on mutual respect with all states of the world, but we should avoid over-identification with any of them. Over-identification has set in when we can no longer discuss the foreign leader’s shortcomings frankly, even among ourselves, and when we begin to think his battles are ours—and vice versa. That happened in both Iran and Egypt. It has also happened in Morocco.

During the past four years we have become over-identified with Hassan, and we were shocked by the union agreement as a result. If we had been more moderate in our affection for him, we would have been spared an unpleasant surprise. Alarm bells should have been ringing from the time of his June 1983 agreement with Qaddafi, but they were not. We took Hassan for granted. He undoubtedly sensed this; his second accord with Qaddafi may have been intended to demonstrate his independence of the United States.

At this point the United States still needs Morocco and cannot afford to alienate it. As long as the United States can maintain reasonable relations with Morocco, based on a hard-headed appraisal of national interests and not on illusions about shared values and identity of goals, it should be able to live with the union agreement, particularly if it does not turn into a working union which compromises Morocco’s ability to honor commitments to the United States. Hassan has his own agenda and must be free to play the North African power game according to Moroccan national interests as he sees them. An essentially cynical arrangement with Qaddafi need not affect his willingness to cooperate with the United States on other matters, and if it has dispelled some of the illusions which have clouded Washington’s perceptions over the past four years, that is a salutary result.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Richard Parker is Editor of the Middle East Journal. A former Ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco, he is the author of North Africa: Regional Tensions and Strategic Concerns, a Council on Foreign Relations book published by Praeger in October 1984.
  • More By Richard B. Parker