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U.S.-Tunisian Relations

By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not. Officially, the United States has very good relations with Tunisia, which date back more than 200 years. For a long time Tunisia has skated by. A small country, in a tough region, the Government of Tunisia relies on vague promises of friendship and empty slogans. The Government of Tunisia frequently says it is a US ally and calls for greater US engagement. The Tunisian government loves the illusion of engagement.

The United States has maintained official representation in Tunis almost continuously since 1795, and the American Friendship Treaty with Tunisia was signed in 1799. The two governments are not linked by security treaties, but relations have been close since Tunisia's independence. U.S.-Tunisian relations suffered briefly after the 1985 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, after the 1988 Tunis assassination of PLO terrorist Abu Jihad, and in 1990 during the Gulf War. In each case, however, relations warmed again quickly, reflecting strong bilateral ties. The United States and Tunisia have an active schedule of joint military exercises. U.S. security assistance historically has played an important role in cementing relations. The U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually to discuss military cooperation, Tunisia's defense modernization program, and other security matters.

The United States first provided economic and technical assistance to Tunisia under a bilateral agreement signed March 26, 1957. In 1961, Tunisia became the first Arab country to request and receive Peace Corps Volunteers, starting a partnership between our two countries that spanned 34 years and enabled 2,382 Americans to join forces with the people of Tunisia in a common endeavor to improve the human condition.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) managed a successful program until its departure in 1994, when Tunisia's economic advances led to the country's "graduation" from USAID funding. Tunisia enthusiastically supported the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP), designed to promote U.S. investment in, and economic integration of, the Maghreb region. The program provided over $4 million in assistance to Tunisia between 2001 and 2003. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) was launched in 2002 and incorporated the former USNAEP economic reform projects while adding bilateral and regional projects for education reform, civil society development, and women's empowerment.

In 2004, the MEPI Regional Office opened in Embassy Tunis. The Regional Office is staffed by American diplomats and regional specialists. It is responsible for coordinating MEPI activities in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia in close coordination with the American Embassies in those countries. The United States also supports Tunisia's civil society and economic development through bilateral Economic Support Funds programs.

American private assistance has been provided liberally since independence by foundations, religious groups, universities, and philanthropic organizations. The U.S. Government has supported Tunisia's efforts to attract foreign investment. The United States and Tunisia concluded a bilateral investment treaty in 1990 and an agreement to avoid double taxation in 1989.

American firms seeking to invest in Tunisia and export to Tunisia can receive insurance and financing for their business through U.S. Government agencies, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. The best prospects for foreigners interested in the Tunisian market are in high technology, energy, agribusiness, food processing, medical care and equipment, and the environmental and tourism sectors.

Starting in 2006, US Mission Tunis offered greater cooperation where the Tunisians said they want it, but not shied from making plain the need for change. The US had some successes, notably in the commercial and military assistance areas. But there were also failures. The US was blocked, in part, by a Foreign Ministry that sought to control all contacts in the government and many other organizations. Too often, the Government of Tunisia preferred the illusion of engagement to the hard work of real cooperation.

On foreign policy, Tunisia has long played a moderate role (although recently its goal has been to "get along with everyone". The Government of Tunisia rejects the Arab League boycott of Israeli goods. Although it broke ties with Israel in 2000, the Government of Tunisia has from time to time taken part in quiet discussions with Israeli officials. The Government of Tunisia also supports Mahmoud Abbas' leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Tunisia participated in the Annapolis conference and has supported our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Government of Tunisia is like-minded on Iran, is an ally in the fight against terrorism, and has maintained an Embassy in Iraq at the Charge level. Moreover, Tunisia recently signed a debt forgiveness agreement with Iraq on Paris Club terms; it is the first Arab country to do so.

Finally, although Tunisians have been deeply angry over the war in Iraq and perceived US bias towards Israel, most still admire the "the American dream." Despite the anger at US foreign policy, there is a growing desire for English-language instruction, a wish for more educational and scientific exchanges, and a belief in the American culture of innovation. Tunisians see these as important for their future.

US-Tunisian relations reflected the realities of the Ben Ali regime. On the positive side, the US had accomplished several goals in recent years, including:-- increasing substantially US assistance to the military to combat terrorism; -- improving (albeit still with challenges) some important counterterrorism programs; -- strengthening commercial ties, including holding a TIFA Council meeting, hosting several trade and economic delegations and growing business activity; -- building ties to young people and the cultural community through expanded English-language programs, a new film festival, and new media outreach efforts; and -- encouraging congressional interest in Tunisia.

But the US also had too many failures. The Government of Tunisia frequently declines to engage, and there have been too many lost opportunities. The Government of Tunisia has:-- declined to engage on the Millennium Challenge Account; -- declined USAID regional programs to assist young people; -- reduced the number of Fulbright scholarship students; and, -- declined to engage in Open Skies negotiations.

Most troubling has been the Government of Tunisia's unilateral and clumsy effort to impose new and retroactive taxes on the American Cooperative School of Tunis. There is little doubt that this action was at the behest of powerful friends (probably including Leila Trabelsi) of the International School of Carthage. It raised important questions about Tunisian governance. If, in the end, the Government of Tunisia's actions force the school to close, the US Embassy would need to downsize the Mission, limit programs, and dial down relations.

At the same time, the Government of Tunisia has also increasingly tightened controls that make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business. The controls, put in place by Foreign Minister Abdallah, require the Mission to obtain written MFA permission for contact with all official and semi-official Tunisian organizations. Mid-level Government of Tunisia officials are no longer allowed to communicate with embassy personnel without express authorization and MFA-cleared instructions. All meeting requests and demarches must be conveyed by diplomatic note. Most go unanswered. All Embassies in Tunis are affected by these controls, but they are no less frustrating for that.

Beyond the stifling bureaucratic controls, the Government of Tunisia makes it difficult for the Mission to maintain contact with a wide swath of Tunisian society. Government of Tunisia-controlled newspapers often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors. Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by EmbOffs, intimidating participants.

Some of the Government of Tunisia's actions may be related to its intense dislike of the former Administration's "freedom agenda." The Government of Tunisia considered this policy dangerous and believed it opened the door for Islamic extremists to seize power. Government of Tunisia leaders have made no secret of their disapproval of the US Ambassador's and other Embassy Officials' contacts with opposition leaders as well as civil society activists who criticized the regime. They were intensely critical, as well, of the previous Administration's use of public statements (such as on World Press Freedom Day 2008), which they believed unfairly targeted Tunisia.

Government of Tunisia officials say the United States tends to focus on issues where the two countries do not see eye-to-eye. They bristle at American calls for greater democratic reform and respect for human rights, and protest they are making progress. For years, the Embassy's top goal has been to promote progress in these areas. For several years, the United States has been out in front -- publicly and privately -- criticizing the Government of Tunisia for the absence of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights. While some in the EU (e.g., Germany, the UK) agree with the US, key countries such as France and Italy have shied from putting pressure on the Government of Tunisia. There is a place for such criticism, a more pragmatic approach would entail speaking to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about concerns regarding Tunisia's democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism. The key element is more and frequent high-level private candor.

The US has an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. The US has an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. The US also has an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights. It is in America's interest, too, to build prosperity and Tunisia's middle class, the underpinning for the country's long-term stability. Moreover, the US needs to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on many regional challenges. The United States needs help in this region to promote its values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, the US might find it.

There are opportunities in the area of security cooperation. For starters, Tunisia could be doing a better job in sharing intelligence with the US about the threat of terrorism in North Africa. This was all too clear when, yet again, the Government of Tunisia failed to share information with in a timely fashion on a reported plot against US military personnel. On military cooperation, the time has come to shift our military assistance away from FMF to more targeted programs that meet specific needs. There is increasing evidence the Tunisian military does not need FMF to the degree it claims, and in any event it has bought the US too little in the way of cooperation. Rather, the US could focus on working with the Tunisians to identify a small number of areas were cooperation makes sense. The recent use of the Section 1206 and PKO programs to provide the Tunisian military with ground surveillance radar and unmanned surveillance aircraft is a good example.

Since President Obama's inauguration, Tunisians have been more receptive to the United States. Senior Government of Tunisia officials have warmly welcomed President Obama's statements and speeches. His address in Cairo drew particular praise, with the Foreign Minister calling it "courageous." Meanwhile, some civil society contacts who had been boycotting Embassy functions in opposition to the war in Iraq have started coming around again. Generally, the metaphor of the "extended hand" in President Obama's inaugural address has resonated powerfully with Tunisians. Concretely, the Tunisians have welcomed many of the Obama Administration's actions, including the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the plans for troop withdrawals from Iraq. Above all, Tunisians have been pleased by the President's tone, statements and actions (so far) on Middle East peace.

Tunisia is not a US ally, but the two countries still share important history and values. It is fair to consider Tunisia a friend, albeit cautious, closed and distant. Most importantly, in a region in turmoil, Tunisia has better prospects than most even though it is troubled. In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali's departure. But President Obama's new tone and policies may create a window of opportunity.

On 21 May 2015, President Obama hosted Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the White House. The visit underscored the United States’ longstanding friendship with Tunisia, the US commitment to strengthening and expanding the strategic partnership with Tunisia’s new government, and US support for the Tunisian people following their historic 2014 democratic elections. President Obama discussed with President Caid Essebsi a range of issues pertaining to the continued consolidation of Tunisia’s democracy, US-Tunisian security cooperation, and Tunisia’s efforts to advance important economic reforms. They also discussed regional developments, including events in Libya and terrorist threats in the region.

President Barack Obama on May 21, 2015 designated Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, praising its democratic reforms in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. The North African nation becomes the 16th country the US has given the designation to, strengthening the military and financial links between the two countries while not creating a mutual defense agreement. Since 1989, the US has created the alliances for European countries outside of its key North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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Page last modified: 21-05-2015 19:27:53 ZULU