Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1990, Page 7
Ben Ali Visit Marks Third Stage in 200-Year-Old US-Tunisian Special Relationship
By Talcott W. Seelye
The state visit in May to Washington of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who first met President Bush during a visit to the UN General Assembly last fall, marks a new stage in a unique US-Tunisian relationship that has endured for nearly two centuries. Soon after its independence, the United States displayed a keen interest in Tunisia and other states in the North African littoral because of profitable trade opportunities in the Mediterranean.
Newly constructed Yankee clippers plying the Mediterranean route, however, were confronted by Barbary pirates who would emerge from North African ports. To protect its commerce, in 1799 the new US government signed a pact of friendship and trade with the Bey (or ruler) of Tunis, who guaranteed the inviolability of "American persons and their goods," in return for payment by the US of an annual tribute.
Such moves were unpopular in the US, where the slogan appeared, "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute." Yet, not having much of a navy in the late 18th century, the US was in a bind.
In 1805, the Tunisian Bey was induced to eliminate the tribute requirement. As part of the deal, the US handed over the Franklin, a ship armed with several canon. Thereafter, an affinity began to develop between Americans and the Bey of Tunis, growing out of mutual opposition to the European powers and Tunisian admiration for American technical and maritime skills.
A number of notable American consuls served in Tunis during this early period. The most famous was William Eaton, who organized a force to depose the neighboring Bey of Tripoli—an operation commemorated in the Marine anthem to the shores of Tripoli."
American Consul David Porter Heap donated a large block of marble from the ruins of ancient Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis, for the Washington monument. American Consul Howard Payne authored "Home Sweet Home."
The Bourguiba Relationship
After a long hiatus, America "rediscovered" Tunisia when General Dwight D. Eisenhower's troops engaged the Germans in battle there during World War II. It was in Tunisia that allied forces accepted the surrender of Germany's Africa Corps, which early in the war had threatened to conquer all of North Africa.
During this period a young Tunisian lawyer by the name of Habib Bourguiba came to the attention of the then-American consul in Tunis, Hooker Doolittle. Bourguiba had been imprisoned by the French for his advocacy of Tunisian independence and had been released from a French jail by the Germans when they occupied all of France. When Bourguiba returned to a German occupied Tunisia, he had refused to cooperate with the Axis powers and had urged Tunisians to support the allies.
Like Bourguiba before him, Ben All has felt the sting of the Israeli-American connection.
Accordingly, after a French administration was reinstalled in Tunisia, Doolittle intervened with the French Resident General on Bourguiba's behalf. Bourguiba claimed in later years that Doolittle's intervention had saved his life. This marked the beginning of Bourguiba's strong attachment to the US.
In leading the Tunisian struggle for independence from France in the post-war years, Bourguiba turned to the US for his principal support. When, on May 17, 1956, Tunisia gained full independence, the US was the first major power to extend recognition. Shortly thereafter, Doolittle returned as a private citizen to a red-carpet welcome in Tunisia.
The US promptly initiated a program of economic and technical assistance amounting to three-quarters of a billion dollars a year. The American aim was to enable Tunisia to serve as a Third World model for foreign-assisted economic development.
In contrast to its economic assistance to Tunisia, American military assistance at first was modest, being essentially in the form of military training. President Bourguiba saw no need for a large military force in an unbelligerent Tunisia, and he was aware of the propensity in the Third World for a strong military to enter politics. As threats from Qaddafi mounted, however, President Bourguiba successfully called on the US a decade ago for certain sophisticated weaponry, including aircraft.
From the US, President Bourguiba adopted such elements of his social-economic platform, called "Bourguibism," as universal education, increased women's rights, and a bill of rights. Bourguiba chose, however, not to introduce democracy since he believed that Tunisia was not ready for it. Instead, he selected a political system characterized as "enlightened authoritarianism."
Throughout his 31 -year tenure as president, Bourguiba placed great emphasis on his special relationship with the US. After he precipitously signed a "union" declaration with Libya in 1984—at a low point in his psychological state—I, as the American ambassador, was the first of two foreign representatives called to the presidency the next day to engage Bourguiba in "reconsideration" talks.
The ambassador of France, toward whose country Bourguiba also retained a special feeling, followed. I cannot say whether either one of us influenced the president's subsequent decision to renege on his commitment to Qaddafi, but the point is that the American ambassador, as so often in the past, was sought out for advice and counsel.
President Bourguiba never hesitated, at least in private, to express the importance he attached to the presence of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. US warships paid regular visits, and it was to the Sixth Fleet that Bourguiba turned when, in 1973, a large dam broke on the Majerda valley after days of heavy rain.
In response to the Tunisian president's appeal, Sixth Fleet helicopters rescued people stranded on housetops, and lives were saved. Such acts served to reinforce the special relationship.
Strains in the Relationship
In 1967, Bourguiba had shown vision and courage on a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, when he urged the other Arab states to accept the reality of Israel and accord it diplomatic recognition. For that Tunisia was suspended from the Arab League.
On the other hand, even the moderate and pro-American Bourguiba could not ignore the harmful consequences of unrestricted US support for Israel. He was not pleased with US opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. When the Israeli Air Force bombed the PLO headquarters outside Tunis in 1986, he became furious at both Israel and the US.
As far as Bourguiba was concerned, it was bad enough that this act had violated Tunisian sovereignty. Worse still was the fact that President Reagan publicly endorsed the attack, only a few weeks after the US had reiterated its support for Tunisia's territorial integrity when Libyan aircraft overflew Tunisia.
Bourguiba recalled that it was only after strong US urging that he had agreed to allow the PLO to set up its headquarters in Tunisia after the PLO's ouster from Lebanon. When, shortly before the actual attack, Israel threatened to attack the PLO "wherever it was," Bourguiba had expressed concern to the US. The US, according to a high Tunisian official, had assured the Tunisians that there was no cause for worry.
Believing that unqualified US support had enabled Israel to mount with impunity the attack in which many Tunisians were killed, and that Israeli planes could not have flown so far without US knowledge, if not collaboration, President Bourguiba seriously considered breaking diplomatic relations with the United States. The day was saved only when the US government verbally backtracked from the initial Reagan statement and disassociated itself from the Israeli attack.
With his advent to power in 1987, Bourguiba's successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, made it clear that he wished to make no fundamental changes in the special US-Tunisian relationship. He expressed a desire to continue military cooperation with the US, and he accepted an invitation from President Reagan to visit the US in the fall of 1988. When mutually convenient dates could not be worked out, the visit was postponed.
During President Ben Ali's visit to the United Nations last November he came to Washington, DC to call informally on President Bush. At that time, a state visit was announced for May 1990, early enough in the administrations of both presidents to demonstrate the continuity of the special relationship.
Like Bourguiba before him, however, Ben Ali has felt the sting of the Israeli-American connection. Shortly after he took over, the Israelis boldly landed on Tunisian shores with a team to assassinate PLO Chairman Arafat's principal deputy, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad).
The US response to the latest violation of Tunisian sovereignty, while less repugnant to Tunisia than Reagan's reaction to the first attack, was still unsatisfactory from the Tunisian standpoint. What the US did was to abstain from vetoing a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israel for this attack, therefore letting it pass.
Again, in Tunisia there was an assumption that the US had been an accomplice or, at the very least, had known about the operation and did nothing to stop it. Because of a groundswell of Tunisian anti-American feeling flowing from the incident, President Ben Ali considered it expedient to release the long-incarcerated leader of the Tunisian Islamic fundamentalist movement. It was the fundamentalists who had led opposition attacks on the government for not having spotted and intercepted the attackers.
Ben Ali evidently does not intend to allow the Israeli attacks to destroy the US-Tunisian relationship, At the same time he is acutely aware that the anti-American sentiment in Tunisia Israeli actions have aroused will be more vociferously expressed as he increasingly opens up Tunisian society. To strengthen Tunisia's Arab nationalist credentials, Ben Ali has improved Tunisia's relations with its sometimes hostile neighbors, Algeria and Libya.
Initial US objections to Tunisia's rapprochement with the supreme American bete noire, Muammar Qaddafi, became somewhat muted as Qaddafi took such positive actions as burying the hatchet with Egypt, and agreeing to the PLO peace initiative at the Arab summit. Ben Ali was also able to point to important local benefits flowing from the Libyan rapprochement, including resolution of a dispute over a valuable offshore oil field.
Ben Ali's reformist leadership, as contrasted with the somewhat repressive and erratic nature of Bourguiba's presidency in his last years, serves American interests. It gives the Tunisian regime with which the US is closely associated a broader base of support and thus enhances its survivability. Nothing could be better for the present tarnished American image in the Middle East than such close association with an enlightened Arab regime, like that of Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. ❑
Talcott W. Seelye was as US ambassador to Tunisia from 1972 to 1976. He was US ambassador to Syria at the time of his retirement from the foreign service in 1981. At present he is a business and political consultant in Washington, DC, and president of the US-Tunisian Friendship Society.