By Major Eric S. Hovey, U.S. Marine Corps
Editor's Note: Major Hovey's thesis won the FAO Assn writing award at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. This essay is adapted from his work on a larger research report, “U.S. Influence and Levers of Power in AFRICOM Countries,” written by faculty and students within the Department of National Security Affairs. The Journal is pleased to bring you this outstanding scholarship.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy’s (NDS) characterization of a global environment dominated by great power competition raises a host of questions about the state of U.S. influence in countries around the world. These questions are especially relevant to African countries, as China, Russia, and other international actors are attempting to increase their influence. Given this competitive environment, the U.S. government needs to understand how and to what extent the U.S. influences partner countries in Africa. What activities and programs benefit U.S. influence; who are the key domestic actors that should be targeted for support?
This paper is an initial attempt to address this knowledge gap for U.S. stakeholders. It first introduces the key findings and recommendations from larger research conducted by the students and faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) regarding U.S. influence within Africa Command (AFRICOM) countries. Faculty and students in the Department of National Security Affairs at NPS executed this research from January through August 2019, using a wide variety of academic, government, and non-government sources. The general recommendations overview is subsequently followed by a detailed case-study of the Kingdom of Morocco, focusing on how the U.S. can maintain its status as a preferred security partner in Morocco. The desired endstate is to empower U.S. stakeholders with the best information possible to maintain the United States’ status as a preferred security partner within key AFRICOM countries.
There are four main takeaways regarding strengthening and sustaining U.S. influence in Africa. First, influence is an inherently complex phenomenon that is difficult to quantify. It may be tempting to look at simple financial metrics of assistance provided by one country to another to gauge influence, but this approach is problematic. Higher amounts of aid could simply indicate that one country needs to pay more to advance its goals than another. Moreover, the retraction of aid as a negotiating tactic could backfire and reduce a donor’s influence, especially if another foreign party stepped in to provide similar benefits. As such, this paper does not assume that an augmentation of resources expended in or on a partner country will increase influence.
Second, U.S. influence varies considerably from country to country in terms of both its strength and substance. This means that country-specific strategies for gaining and maintaining influence should be pursued to the maximum extent possible. A blanket-approach towards African outreach is less desirable, since the types of programs and activities that work in one country might be less effective in another.
U.S. influence also varies within countries. Individuals or groups with closer economic, political or social links to the United States (such as civic organization); or those who possess shared values based on democracy, human rights and individual economic freedoms are likely to be more receptive to U.S. influence. For example, the collapse of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia following the 2011 Arab Spring brought about new opportunities for the U.S. to form partnerships with pro-democratic actors. The U.S. should identify and strengthen partnerships with these types of actors.
Finally, this paper underscores the primacy of sovereignty for African partners. Many African countries, including the Kingdom of Morocco, are highly aware of, and sensitive to, potential intrusions on their sovereignty. A common refrain during discussions with numerous U.S. Embassy personnel throughout various embassies was that host nation personnel would not do anything they did not want to do. Given the frequency and intensity of observed sovereignty concerns, traditional “carrots” (rewards) and “sticks” (coercion) may be less effective tools of influence than efforts to cultivate longer-term shared interests and reinforce shared values. Additionally, U.S. efforts to disrupt competitor activity could backfire if they are perceived by partner countries as impinging on their autonomy and sovereignty.
This paper outlines four key recommendations about the types of activities that can most likely protect and strengthen U.S. influence. These recommendations focus on activities and
strategies to build medium- and longer-term influence within AFRICOM countries. Given the limited scope of this paper, however, they do not consider how U.S. activities affect competitor behavior.
1. Focus programs and activities on actors and institutions who share U.S. values and can benefit from U.S. programs. Amidst increasinglydiverse political landscapes, it is critical to identify and support domestic actors thatshare U.S. interests.
2. Continue and/or expand U.S. military and education programs that cultivate meaningful relationships. U.S. training and education programs are generally held in high regard; those who complete courses in the U.S. are especially likely to be promoted and may go on to hold powerful positions.
3. Focus on aid and assistance programs that visibly benefit the population, particularly in democratic contexts. Cultivating popular support can promote governments’ anticipatory compliance with U.S. requests, since government authorities generally seek to prevent popular mobilization around losses of livelihood or freedom. Increase public relations efforts surrounding U.S. and affiliated programs.
4. Continue to support and protect democratic gains from the last two decades. Popular support for democracy in Africa is high and public protestscan check politicians’ willingness to cede sovereignty toforeign actors. Democracy assistance can therefore reinforce shared values, support the population’sability to act as a constraint on leaders’ decisions, and provide a clear alternative to themore authoritarian systems of government embraced by Russia and China.
5. Tailor aid and assistance programs to advance the government’s economic vision. Supporting long-term economic goals can cultivate shared interests, move away from transactional relationships, and make the U.S.a more attractive partner.
The U.S. has strong influence within Morocco, owing to its longstanding security partnerships, military training exercises, and economic ties from both Millennium Challenge Corporation Compacts and free-trade agreements. The modern-day special relationship between the U.S. and Morocco was birthed out of symbiotic security concerns during the Cold War, but shifted after 9/11 to focus more on shared concerns regarding counterterrorism. The most important aspect of the U.S./Morocco relationship is that, while U.S. interests shift with every administration, the Western Sahara remains an enduring geopolitical issue for the Kingdom of Morocco. The political leadership within Morocco view the Western Sahara as an enduring, existential issue and the predominant lens to view all U.S. security cooperation.
Conversely, U.S. interests in Morocco have changed over time to reflect larger strategic priorities. The Cold War focus on Soviet containment subsequently shifted to building an anti-Saddam coalition and renewing Arab-Israeli peace talks during the 1990s, followed by counterterrorism post 9/11, and transitioning now to great power competition. Even as U.S. strategic priorities shift, however, the historical and political question of Western Sahara remains the central issue undergirding Morocco’s cooperation with the U.S.
Morocco was and is seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner and, after the Arab Spring. the U.S. government has been quick to support King Mohammed VI’s efforts to establish political and economic reforms and greater protection of human rights. Though there are still protest movements within Morocco that suggest the government’s 2011 reforms have not gone far enough, Morocco is still widely perceived as a liberalizing country on a positive economic trajectory and touted as the “Face of Modern Africa.”
Security Objectives and Shared Interests
U.S. and Moroccan security objectives are built on military expediency: the U.S. wants a reliable partner for its shifting North Africa priorities, while the Moroccan government wants support from the U.S. for its interests in Western Sahara and to maintain the Alawite dynasty.
Morocco was a staunch U.S. supporter of anti-communism during the Cold War, acting as a surrogate regional power and part of the Reagan Administration’s “strategic consensus” of the U.S. and its allies against Soviet communism and left-wing insurgencies. The Moroccan government contributed troops and political legitimacy by supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War, even as massive protests wracked Rabat for supporting the coalition. In recognition of Morocco’s enduring significance as a pro-U.S. partner, the Clinton administration sponsored a UN Security Council resolution on Western Sahara that would have favored the Moroccan government, but withdrew under pressure from Algeria and South Africa. Regardless, the fundamental nature of the security relationship stayed constant: the U.S. did not contest Morocco’s positions on Western Sahara, and in turn, the Moroccans supported U.S. military actions like the invasion of Iraq.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 only strengthened the security ties between the U.S. and Morocco because of shared concerns about terrorism causing regional instability. As the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, a massive 2003 Casablanca terrorist attack reinforced the mutual interests that the Moroccan and U.S. governments’ had in combating radical Islamic terrorism. The Moroccan government launched a sophisticated, 3-pronged strategy to combat domestic terrorism that included a law enforcement-centric focus leveraging partnerships with the U.S. Department of Justice, a “soft power” employment of U.S. development assistance in rural and disadvantaged regions of the country, and the countering of radical jihadi teaching with indigenous, moderate teachings of Maliki Islamic law. Critically, the Moroccan position on supporting larger U.S. counterterrorism operations always referred back to their larger domestic concerns regarding interests in the Western Sahara. The Moroccan position was that an independent Western Sahara could become a potential safe haven for terrorist actors, so counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. in the security sector amounted to tacit endorsement of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara.
The U.S. and Moroccan militaries maintain close ties, with the only noteworthy potential source of friction being sensitivity towards the sovereignty of Western Sahara. U.S. military planners engaging with their Moroccan counterparts should be aware of the sensitivity of this topic and avoid intentional or unintentional reference to Western Sahara.
Security Sector Influence Activities
The Moroccan government place a high value on its historically strong relationship with the U.S. government. The Royal Armed Forces’ (FAR) noteworthy logistical and maintenance capabilities of its major U.S.-procured foreign military sales (FMS) equipment (aircraft, wheeled and tracked vehicles) speaks volumes to the strength of this bond and their judiciousness in effectively using U.S. aid. The bulk of tangible U.S. security sector influence activities in Morocco can be outlined in terms of FMS coordination with the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF), the Royal Moroccan Navy (RMN), and the Royal Moroccan Land Forces.
Morocco seeks to upgrade its RMAF combat air forces, which currently include aging F-5 fighters and French Mirage F1s. Given the RAF’s stated modernization goals, the desire to be interoperable with the U.S./allies, and the fact that their rival Algerians have pursued procurement of advanced SU-30 MKA fighters from Russia, upgrading the aviation fleet is unsurprising. Modernizing the RMAF with U.S. equipment, including 24 F-16s purchased from the United States for $2.4 billion, both strengthens the U.S.-Moroccan military cooperation and serves as a counterweight to a key regional rival (Algeria).
The Royal Moroccan Land Forces have also made extensive use of U.S. military equipment to upgrade their forces. The Moroccans requested and received 222 M1A1 Abrams tanks through the DoD’s Excess Defense Articles program in 2018 and are in contract development to procure an additional 162 M1A1s. The U.S. State Department also approved the sale of TOW 2A anti-tank missile systems in 2016. Advanced U.S. military equipment is thus a critical part of the Moroccan military’s air and ground forces.
Effectiveness and Moroccan Response
The U.S. government frames security sector influence activities with Morocco in terms of cooperation towards mutual interests of combating terrorism. From the Moroccan standpoint, however, U.S. military FMS are more likely seen as a counterweight to regional competition with Algeria, vis-à-vis the disputed Western Sahara region. In the post 9/11 era, Morocco’s significance as a counterterrorism ally seems to have overcome any previous reservations about selling them U.S. military equipment. Morocco moved quickly to increase its counterterrorism capabilities and was designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States on June 3, 2004, reflecting their status as an effective and reliable partner in larger U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The strongest and most enduring relationships between the U.S. and Morocco are in the military/security realm, with economic ties being a close second. Not only is Morocco and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, but they have military forces deployed to UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Morocco has the positive distinction of being the only country in North Africa not to have suffered from a major terrorist attack since 2012, a testament both to U.S. support and the Moroccan government’s holistic counterterrorism strategy.
The strong ties between the U.S. and Morocco in the security realm do not preclude the influence of other countries, or indigenous Moroccan promotion of military capabilities. The French government not only coordinates upgrades to the Moroccan fleet of F1 Mirage fighters and French-manufactured Mohammed VI frigate, but facilitates bilateral exchanges between Moroccan and French military academies. The Moroccans also have historically close ties working with the British government on matters of military training and modernization. While the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army – Navy has conducted port-call visits in Morocco, they do not have as robust a military relationship as the U.S. or European allies.
Influence Outside Of The Security Sector
The U.S. has predominantly carrot options for achieving influence in the political and economic spheres. Historically, the top three U.S. policy goals for Morocco have been stability, prosperity, and democracy. The U.S. approach to achieving influence in these domains has encompassed six major program areas: “trade and investment; social and economic development; democracy and human rights; professional and educational exchanges; foreign policy coordination; and military cooperation.” The following portions outline U.S. approaches to influence beyond the military domain.
Social and Economic Development.
U.S. policy towards Morocco has long stressed the need for economic and social reforms, but the 2011 Arab Spring was a catalyst for expedited change. While the U.S. government has some carrot-incentivization programs in place to help influence positive economic and social change, the persistence of issues like youth unemployment speak to the limits of U.S. influence. Programs like the USAID’s Career Center are targeted towards youth employment in Marrakesh,
Casablanca, and Tangier, but it is unlikely that U.S. efforts can have large-scale, transformative change to address Morocco’s unemployment issues. Even as Morocco continues to demonstrate strong economic growth relative to the rest of North Africa, its overall unemployment rate remains troublingly high around 10%.
Democracy and Human Rights
Morocco’s government continues to pursue incremental reforms to address agitation for democratic and human rights reforms, but overall progress is slow. The U.S. remains normatively committed to the spread of democracy and improved human rights in Morocco, but U.S. influence is limited mainly to carrot-incentivization with the support of the kingdom.
USAID has three major programs that support democratization in Morocco. The Civil Society Strengthening Program is a five-year effort (2015-2019) designed to facilitate greater engagement between civil society organizations and the Moroccan government, while the Favorable Opportunities to Reinforce Self-Advancement for Today’s Youth (FORSATY) has targeted northern Morocco with programs that provide non-formal education and vocational training to discourage disenfranchised young people from being recruited into terrorism. The third program, Community Oriented Policing Activity, is a grass-roots effort to improve relations between communities, at-risk youth, police, and government leaders. While there is no clear line to demarcate how much of an influence these USAID programs have on supporting democratization within Morocco, the fact that Morocco successfully held unprecedented, simultaneous local and regional elections in 2015 demonstrates that tangible progress is being made in this space.
The subject of influence regarding the U.S. and Morocco’s foreign policy is complex. From a U.S. standpoint, the two countries are largely in alignment: successive U.S. administrations have viewed Morocco as a reliable partner in regional security, trade, and development. The U.S. government supports Morocco with numerous carrot-incentivization programs, such as a U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation compact and a 2017 bilateral “Initiative to Address Homegrown Violent Extremists” agreement that was signed as part of the larger multilateral Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). On the surface, there seems to be little potential for friction as concerns diplomatic, military, and economic issues between the U.S. and Morocco. From the Moroccan standpoint, however, the foreign policy issue of Western Sahara is salient and is a major locus of their U.S. influence efforts.
`The significance of Western Sahara as a foreign policy issue deserves special consideration when discussing influence, because it is a red line for the Moroccan government. Words and actions that support the Moroccan government’s claim to the Western Sahara will increase influence with the Moroccan government, while any perceived criticism of the Moroccan government’s claim to sovereignty will result in immediate, negative action. Case in point, the Moroccan government cancelled AFRICAN LION in April 2013 as punishment for the U.S. State Department’s questioning of human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara. The closeness between the Moroccan and U.S. governments stems from tacit U.S. support of Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara; Morocco gains military, diplomatic, and economic backing from the U.S. and in turn acts as a surrogate for U.S. interests in the MENA.
Given Western Sahara’s significance, the biggest carrot possible to increase influence between the U.S. and Morocco government would be outright recognition of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara (vice the currently ambiguous support to Western Sahara’s autonomy within Morocco). However, such a pronouncement would have numerous, negative ramifications (not the least of which, alienating U.S.-Algerian relations), so maintaining the status quo seems the least bad option to maintain influence with Morocco.
Morocco has invested heavily to try to shift western policymakers’ positions on the Western Sahara. In 2013, Morocco spent the sixth largest amount of lobbying money of any foreign country to influence U.S. policymakers. The Moroccan government dwarfs the lobbying spending of every other North African country by a significant margin; in 2018 the Moroccans spent $1,475,458 of government spending and $977,484 non-government spending to influence the U.S., the next closest spender was Algeria with $390,000 government spending and $59,930 non-government spending. Morocco’s lobbying efforts extend past the U.S. to include leaders within the European Union. The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, not only relaunched a series of free trade talks with the EU, but was able to issue a joint communiqué with his EU counterpart that lauded “the serious and credible efforts” of Morocco to obtain a peace settlement in the Western Sahara.
Western policymakers should be aware that, from the standpoint of foreign policy influence, the Moroccan media closely scrutinizes the return on investment for its lobbying. Frequently, lobbying efforts are portrayed in the context of competition with Algeria. When the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a draft funding bill that separated aid for Morocco from Western Sahara in January 2019, this event was considered a setback for Morocco and a “win” for Algeria as result of their more effective lobbying. Happily for the Moroccan government, their perceived influence with France and Spain in the EU is considered stronger than the support that the Polisario receives from its main EU ally, Sweden.
Domestic Levers of Power Introduction
The phrase lever of power for this paper denotes an actor, group, or institution that can influence government decisions. There are three broad categories of levers: horizontal (governmental levers which can include legislatures, key military personnel, etc.), vertical (the Moroccan citizenry), and diagonal levers (organized groups lacking formal state power, including civil society organizations, religious leaders, etc.). Morocco’s status as a constitutional monarchy means that, as with many African nations, power is predominantly concentrated with the chief executive.
The Moroccan king is the most important horizontal lever of power within the country but U.S. stakeholders to consider other domestic actors to cultivate shared U.S.-Moroccan values and building long-term influence. This section focuses predominantly on King Mohammed VI, given his outsized influence in government decision-making, but it also addresses trends in civil society groups given post-Arab Spring reforms and the significance of the ongoing Western Sahara dispute. Understanding these different levers is essential to ensure the continuation of activities that best protect and strengthen U.S. influence.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is the central figure of national decision making since assuming the throne in 1999. He is the central authority figure within a “complex political system” that includes a parliament and local-level representatives with real but limited decision-making authorities. Demands for change to this centralized power structure reached a high point during the 2011 Arab Spring, when 98 percent of voters supported the king’s constitutional reforms amidst a 73 percent turnout of registered voters. Even with the reforms, however, Morocco’s government sits stubbornly at a “partly free” ranking, with only minor improvements since 2001. The slow progress towards democratization is frustrating for some Moroccans, but the openings towards greater free speech and improvements on human rights reflect King
Mohammed VI’s desire to improve the nation while not destabilizing the kingdom. Additionally, in more recent years, officials have struggled to respond to resurgent protests and other forms of activism that “apparently reflect ongoing grievances over economic challenges, corruption, and police brutality.”
Aside from the monarchy, most important political party is the Party for Justice and Democracy (PJD). The PJD is an Islamist party that leads an “often fractious multiparty government coalition.” The PJD’s agenda has focused on reforming pensions and subsidy programs, and has “weighed in on cultural, media, justice sector, and educational policies, sometimes with the apparent aim of introducing greater religiosity into the public sphere, although the party's leadership defines its stance as one of moderation.” The PJD walks a difficult balancing act: its well-organized grassroots support with a Moroccan voting public that increasingly wants democratic and economic reforms must also not advocate any too dramatic reforms that could cause it to lose the support of the palace.
Even with King Mohammed VI’s reforms, Morocco is still beset by economic and social cleavages along generational lines. While older generations of Moroccans typically express confidence in the country’s institutions, younger generations are increasingly frustrated by the limited economic and political opportunities. The economic resentment of many Moroccan youth is unsurprising, given that the youth unemployment rate has averaged 19 percent from 1999 to 2019, spiking to 29.3 percent at one point in 2017. As such, Arab Barometer polling indicates that seven-in-ten Moroccan youth between the ages of 18 and 29 are considering emigrating. Though public trust in the army, police, and judiciary remains high, a large majority of Moroccans believe that state institutions have corruption; support for political Islam is rapidly declining, especially among the youth.
While the effects of the Arab Spring were not as severe as in Syria or Libya, Moroccan protestors nonetheless agitated for a more participative government and more accountable public services. King Mohammed VI moved quickly to address the demands of the populace with a series of economic, political, and social reform projects. Sater notes how the king created both an unprecedented Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address past issues of state-sponsored human rights abuses and constitutional reforms to support a “Moroccan-style” form of democracy. The king’s willingness to acknowledge and acquiesce some of the protestor’s demands played a large part in maintaining Morocco’s stability during the Arab Spring, even as other countries were plunged into civil war.
Such moves are indicative of a strengthened civil society and there are some indications that mobilization may continue even after reforms. As Sean Yom notes however, some aspects of these movements are not necessarily pro-democratic:
Movement without transition does not imply the impossibility of change. Regime change can still occur in Morocco...But if and when it happens, it will be a matter of revolutionary explosions from below, not incremental transitions guided from above. Large youth populations and widespread economic deprivation make for a volatile mix, as the Arab Spring showed...[Youth politics goes on via] informal networks that operate underground and traffic in radical ideas about jailing the political class for corruption; providing millions of unemployed with jobs; and above all replacing the monarchy, but not necessarily with Western-style democracy.
Finally, the Western Sahara question merits attention as a non-traditional lever of power as well. Western Sahara is a phosphate-rich region, southwest of Morocco and bordering Mauritania, that King Mohammed V formally claimed in 1958 (Moroccan kings had formally controlled the area prior to French/Spanish colonization). The Moroccan claim was contested by Spain, but after King Hassan II organized the Green March of roughly 350,000 Moroccans into the disputed territory in 1975 (and the U.S. pressured Spain) the Madrid Accords were signed, ceding control of Western Sahara from Spain to Morocco. Algeria opposed Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara out of Cold War and regional power-balancing concerns, and supports the main separatist group, the Polisario, to this day.
Western Sahara has economic significance beyond its symbolic value to the Moroccan regime. A key component of synthetic fertilizers, phosphate, can be found in both Morocco and Western Sahara, and control of both regions gives the Moroccan government a dominant 72% of world’s phosphate-rock reserves. Additionally, one of the most productive fisheries in the world, the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem, is found in the Western Sahara, a source of revenue in terms of both exports and fishing licenses. The economic and geopolitical significance of Western Sahara helps explain why the Moroccan government remains adamant about its claims to the region.
Overall, King Mohammed VI is the most important actor for U.S. stakeholders to consider when considering U.S. influence in Morocco, but there are other critical levers that merit analysis. Beyond the growth of civil society organizations and the dominance of the PJD political party, the Western Sahara deserves special consideration. While not a traditional lever per se, the economic and geopolitical significance of the region to the Moroccan government means that it has outsized influence on policymaking.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Morocco and the U.S. have a long history of partnership and a mutual interest in countering violent extremism. U.S. support in both the military and economic spheres have helped to cement this relationship. The willingness of the U.S. to stay out of affairs related to Western Sahara is also crucial for understanding the strength of the partnership. Any changes on that particular issue, to include a strengthened partnership with Algeria, could jeopardize U.S. influence in Morocco. The principal recommendation from this paper then is to maintain the status quo.
Any changes in policy toward Western Sahara and/or scaling back of support or cooperation with Morocco should be analyzed carefully for potential fallout in this important relationship. Part of U.S. strength in Morocco is derived from Morocco’s strong relationships with U.S. allies such as Spain, France, and Saudi Arabia. Major decisions regarding the U.S. Morocco relationship should keep these multi-lateral dynamics in mind. Even as the U.S. military seeks to reorient and posture itself to contend with China and Russia as NDS pacing threats, continued maintenance of the status quo with Morocco will likely ensure that the U.S. remains a preferred security partner.
The King remains the dominant figure in Morocco but, since the Arab Spring 2011, citizen pressures to reform have continued to some extent and may lie dormant. The U.S. should plan for possible large-scale protests of the kind that are currently happening in Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere. A regime change would represent a major threat to the current partnership, particularly if more conservative Islamist groups seize power. Continuation of U.S. economic programs are particularly important in this regard because no matter what happens politically, Moroccan leaders will be likely to see an important benefit from such programs.
About the Author
Major Hovey is a U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer and recent graduate “with distinction” of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Regional Security Studies (Sub-Saharan Africa) master’s program. He has deployed to both PACOM and EUCOM for fleet tours with the air and ground combat element. He will report to the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco for FAO in-region training for his next assignment.’