Did the US Give Green Light for Ben Ali’s Overthrow?

A  friend, relative of a Tunisian family in Colorado, today took me for a ride in the hills above the Mediterranean just 2 kilometers north of La Marsa. On the way, we passed the residency of the French Ambassador  and nearby, one of the trashed out mansions of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans, the two ruling clans that ran the country into the ground economically and politically. The gutted mansion stood on the corner of the road to Gammarth by the Mediterranean where it bisects Rue Hannibal. Down the block is a chic looking restaurant called `Le Cafe Journal.’

The mansion belonged to Imad Trabelsi, one of Leila Trabelsi’s nephews, recently sentenced to 18 years in prison by a post Ben Ali tribunal. One of the graffiti notes left on the wall filled with slogans against the Ben Ali years read `Dear Imad – Thanks for the wall – signed Abdel Aziz.’  The place was thoroughly trashed, pulverized really, as if hit by a drone missile gone astray from Pakistan! All the other Ben Ali – Trabelsi mansions, many of them, like this one built on property expropriated from the state to the two families lie in similar ruin. Not roped off, they remain open to the public.

A person can just walk in and look around as we did. Trabelsi did not get along well with the neighbors and didn’t seem to care. The unbridled arrogance of the nouveau riche! Trabelsi  had the neighbors pay for a retaining wall within the property to insure privacy. The mansion hosted loud and wild parties, almost non-stop I was told. The neighbors complained to the police, the police came and arrested the neighbors for disturbing the party rather than the party-ers for disturbing the peace. In quiet revenge, Trabelsi’s neighbors did not lift a finger to stop the popular rage against the property . Not many tears were thus shed when the Trabelsis fled.

I wondered, with the French residence being so close, how close the Trabelsis were to the French diplomats who protected and defended the old order down till the end and at how many Trabelsi wild soirees the French ambassador (or other French diplomats)  might have been regulars. Did  the ambassador pass by to check out the damage, symbolic at least on some level of the damage done to French – Tunisian relations as well. Because France took something of a diplomatic hit from the Tunisian crisis.

General Rachid Ammar’s Dilemma

Just at the time Zine el Abidine Ben Ali – whose name in Tunisia today is worth less than mud – fled Tunisia with a million Tunisians cheering him on to go, a curious article appeared in the French press. It was curious because of its content and brevity. It alleged that the chief of the Tunisian army, General Rachid Ammar was at a loss as to whether or not to obey Ben Ali’s orders to mow down protesters with machine guns from armored vehicles and helicopters.

General Ammar, who has slipped back into obscurity, was caught in the middle between Ben Ali and the Tunisian people. Caught in one of those `damned if you do – damned if you don’t’ moments. His crisis was being unable to discern at the time which side in the fight between Ben Ali and `the people’ would come out the winner. Before January 12, 2011 when 150,000 people demonstrated against Ben Ali in Sfax in a demonstration called by the country’s union movement – the UGTT – it was not at all clear who would win – Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi (who was hated in some quarters here in Tunisia even more than the president) or the Tunisian people. Given that making the wrong decision could have cost General Ammar dearly , he needed to weigh his decision carefully.

It is exactly at crisis moments like this that former President George Bush tells us, that he consulted God. Maybe General Ammar did too, but if the French press is right, Ammar also was in close contact with, the then acting head of Africom, General William Ward  whom the French suggest played a key if not decisive role in influencing Ammar’s decision, helping the Tunisian chief of staff understand which ways  the political winds were blowing. Apparently the United States was betting against Ben Ali. Whatever advice General Ward offered to Ammar, it was enough to help give the good man enough spine needed to refuse Ben Ali’s order to slay his own people at will.

And for that, Ammar became and remains something of a Tunisian national hero, `le centurion du peuple’  coming only behind the immolated Mohammed Bouazzizi and the million or so demonstrators that marched on Tunis, calling on Ben Ali to make a hasty departure.

The French press revealed the details of the Ammar-Ward relationship at that sensitive moment. Let us be clear here, theirs is more than a personal connection. The contact marked a quiet watershed in U.S. Tunisian ties. The French were not pleased the Americans had gotten to Ammar before they did and so  the story was leaked in bits and pieces in an effort to press the French government to define itself more clearly on the Tunisian crisis. France defended Ben Ali almost up to the last second, the United States shifted gears and gambled against Ben Ali in the last two seconds, so the U.S. stuck it to France and positioned itself well to influence the flow of events in the post Ben Ali period.

France, as nervous about losing its influence in North Africa as it is concerned about the crisis of the euro, responded by trying to regain the influence in Libya which it had lost in Tunisia by pushing NATO to take military action against Khadaffi.

The Americans didn’t mind if France got its claws in Libya which would be a mess for a long time and therefore be more France’s problem than the U.S.’s. Besides Washington could argue this time that it was France that was too quick on the trigger taking a little pressure off what the U.S. was doing unsuccessfully in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and unofficially in Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else. In the end Tunisia would be a much easier country to `help rebuild’, Libya more difficult. A U.S. foothold in Tunisia has its own strategic logic, in line perhaps with AFRICOM plans for Africa?  Not a bad deal.

Let’s look at the chain of events.

There were signs – today not all that difficult to read – that the U.S. was at least positioning itself for a post Ben Ali future. It is not that the U.S. engineered the changes, but more that in the Tunisan case, they tried jumping on a running horse rather than blowing it out of existence with bunker busters, smart bombs and torture.

First there some of the WikiLeaks dealing with Tunisia making it clear that the State Department had no illusions about Ben Ali’s lack of popularity, his repressive politics and the money-grabbing nature of the crudely nouveau riche Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans.

The statements of the current U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, himself a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco I am told, has consistently praised the transition away from Ben Ali-ism and seems to have played a role in the emerging U.S. approach

The evidence is mounting that the U.S. was not unhappy to see Ben Ali go and when they had the opportunity, let that be known to General Ammar through the medium of AFRICOM commander William Ward. The suggestion that came with Ward’s comments – made either directly or in a more coded manner – was like manna from Heaven for Ammar. he could assume, rightly or wrongly, that the weight of the United States was behind him, helping prop up his confidence to stand down Ben Ali.

An article appeared today (December 11, 2011) taking up the issue of the new U.S.-Tunisian relationship. Nawaat.org, an human rights alternative website, published a piece in French by Farhat Othman, former diplomat expelled by Ben Ali for not towing the party line in the 1990s. His piece is entitled La verite sur la revolution tunisienne en dix points (The Tunisian Revolution’s Truths Explained in 10 points) in which he asserts that the U.S. supported Ben Ali’s overthrow, why the Tunisians took the U.S. bait, and what the nature of the evolving U.S.- Tunisian relationship could look like.

Perhaps Othman will elaborate on these points in the future, but let me say that for the moment, his is a coherent, credible explanation of the U.S. role.

Given  the overall record of the United States in the region, complimenting the United States, U.S. Middle East policy in any way in Tunisia is not easy.  Othman is taking a lot of heat. His reward for putting forth his ideas so far has mostly to be thoroughly trashed by readers  comments, but I think that he has come as close as anyone to explaining the hows and whys of the new U.S – Tunisian relationship.

Othman begins by calling the uprising in Tunisia, now nearly a year old,  a `people’s coup’ and gives it his full support. In so doing, Othman begins by paying homage to those who actually made the revolution: the country’s youth who paid the price with their blood and suffering. It is not particularly original but it reveals the deep respect and love that the Tunisian people as a whole feel for their youth, those that showed a courage that many older people here could not quite muster, a courage not for themselves but for the country as a whole and in so doing rekindled the wholesome fires that is a long suppressed Tunisian nationalism.

What follows however is more original and probably explains what triggered the negative responses.

Othman states unequivocally that the Tunisian revolution could not have succeeded on its own without the green light from Washington and the media coverage the protest movement here enjoyed from Al Jazeera. He credits `the green light’ as the key element that gave the Tunisian military the courage not to fire on demonstrators; that corresponds to what I argued above.

I would only add here, that Tunisians did not go asking kindly for permission, with Washington agreeing. It was rather that unable in any way to control the flow of events in Tunisia (or elsewhere in the region these days) the Obama Administration had, for a change, the good sense to roll with the punches so to speak and make the best of it. Had Obama not seen it in U.S. interests to help push Ben Ali aside, he could have made life much more difficult for Tunisia’s social movement.

Othman goes on to claim that Washington’s support for the changes in Tunisia are not as strange as it might seem. Without mentioning the specific cases, he is referring to the U.S. policy of abandoning allies when they are no longer useful. Cases like Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu of Zaire come to mind. There are many more examples. At times, U.S. global interests needs new face as the old ones have become more a liability than an asset. So it was with Ben Ali. Supporting him too long backfires politically. The U.S. understood this.  Sarkozy didn’t until it was too late.   Othman’s point here is that to suggest that the United States was preparing for some kind of change like this in the Arab World.

The U.S. Middle East policy has been in crisis for some time. No secret. Some (I’m one of them) would go further and say that it is, overall, in shambles with no long term strategy, a more and more militarized policy which just stumbles from one crisis to another. No vision, No de Gaulles to save us from ourselves. It is a policy that has welded virtually every U.S. administration since World War 2 to Arab tyrants – secular and religious, and Israeli policies against the Palestinians and neighboring Arab people.

To that overall structural rot, long percolating, add the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The combined impact of these policies has led to a precipitous loss of U.S. prestige throughout the region. At some point…and it sure seems we’re almost there, the negative reaction that these policies have triggered boil over that they threaten U.S  strategic regional interests there  (specifically oil and natural gas) unless things change.

Supporting the Tunisian `people’s coup’ gave Washington to change course just to the slightest degree and to identify with the historic movement of the Arab peoples, rather than against it…and of course slap the French in the face (it really is a very small slap actually) which pleases Washington.

A new alliance?

The more controversial part of Othman’s hypothesis is that he openly credits the United States for having helped enable the Tunisian changes and doesn’t really mind giving the Obama Administration credit for it. It takes a bit of courage to defend that position, and courage on Nawaat’s part to publish the piece too. The argument is simply that for a moment in time, without illusions,  the needs of Tunisian democracy coincide with developing U.S. strategy in the region. Not a marriage of love, but one of convenience.

Othman makes this argument in a classically Tunisian manner. It is not out of ignorance of the overall U.S. role in the Middle East. Tunisians, of left, right or center are not stupid. Comes with being a small country! To survive you have to be brighter than bigger and frankly not very nice neighbors – Algeria and Libya. The more I watch Tunisian foreign policy, the more I am impressed by both its cosmopolitan nature and its political pragmatism. Tunisians know Washington. But they also know that their close relationship with France over decades have yielded them little to nothing.

Othman speaks of France’s claims of solidarity with Tunisia as being `no more than words, and essentially demogagic’ He ‘s got French Tunisia policy pegged. So what does Tunisia have to lose by distancing itself from France and edging closer to the United States which is just acting, , as any imperialist power would act, trying to enhance its strategic interests in the region and improve its image by befriending Tunisia?

This is not the line of reasoning the line of reasoning of a Tunisian neo-conservative pandering to Washington instead of Paris. It is something far different from what I can understand, although it is a gamble for Tunisia rolling the dice with Washington, obviously.

Then what is it?

Practical choices for small countries are rather limited, at least within the framework of traditional world politics. Tunisia finds itself caught in the  dilemma of many of the world’s small countries, trapped as potential pawns in the big power game to try to figure out which way the wind is blowing and what alliances to make with the world powers that might further their national interests.

So… without the U.S. green light, the Tunisian revolution could have turned to a blood bath.  In recognition of the U.S. role, Tunisia opens a new page its relations with the United States, downgrading them a bit (here let’s not exaggerate too much) with Paris. Onn the basis premise, Othman is on  target . Ghannouchi’s `informal’ invitation to the U.S. only reinforces the validity of his views. U.S. – Tunisian approaches are being coordinated. Ghannouchi was careful not to let any issue that might sidetrack the cooperation – like adding a section of the proposed constitution to complicate the relations. He has made other gestures in the direction of damage control as well.

Somewhere along the way, the United States has decided that it will cooperate with Ennahdha and that there is a new U.S.-Ennahdha strategic relationship in the making. Indeed it is already made.

Othman gives the Obama Administration credit for understanding Ennahdha better than the French have. The French fear it as yet another manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism masked with a cover of European liberalism. There are some Tunisians here, by the way who feel likewise.

The new alliance builds on similar relations the United States has with Turkey. It shows a modicum of realism, a willingness to deal with a Middle East country more on its own terms, rather on terms dictated by Washington and as such, also is an admission of declining U.S. influence as Washington can no longer dictate Middle East policy. It needs to be more flexible to maintain its interests. It is the beginning of recognition in the U.S. Administration of a need for a changed U.S. policy, perhaps too little too late . U.S. policy in the Middle East has done enormous damage already that will not be so easily undone

Yes, there are many problems with this strategic alliance both from Tunisian and the United States point of view but in a region where the U.S. is drowning in bad and inhumane policies – contrast its current support for Tunisian democracy with its policies towards much more strategically important Egypt, it is at least a glimmer of hope on an otherwise dark regional tableau.

ROB PRINCE lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at robertjprince@comcast.net

Rob Prince lectures in International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at robertjprince@comcast.net.