February 14, 2009


The Saharan Conundrum (NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, 2/15/09, NY Times Magazine)

“I have always thought that democracy was our best antiterror weapon,” Mark Boulware, the American ambassador to Mauritania, told me when I met him in Washington last fall. Boulware arrived in Mauritania at an opportune time. In April 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi became president after the country’s first transparent election. Cooperation with the United States on security issues immediately resumed, ending a two-year hiatus that followed a coup in 2005. With Abdallahi’s presidency, the Bush administration’s two dominant priorities, fighting terrorism and promoting democracy, appeared to dovetail perfectly.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte flew to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, for Abdallahi’s inauguration ceremony. Months later, Bush invited Abdallahi to an intimate discussion among emerging democracies during the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Washington welcomed Mauritania into its Threshold Program, an anteroom to full membership in the Millennium Challenge Account — the flagship of the Bush administration’s approach to development aid, where funds became available only after countries achieved a certain score on a range of good-government indexes.

The democratic movement in Mauritania did not last long. Last August, Abdallahi’s generals overthrew him after he tried to fire them. The American partnership with Mauritania promptly collapsed. A high-tech American surveillance plane, which had been based in Mauritania to fly over the northern part of the country, searching for Al Qaeda training camps, was removed, as were the 80 or so Army and Marine Special Forces troops that were training a counterterrorism unit. The Threshold Program funds dried up, and Mauritania’s chances for membership in the Millennium Challenge Account disappeared.

“We were using Mauritania as an example of how countries should move forward with elections,” Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, told me. Dailey served more than three decades in the army’s shadowy world of Special Operations, eventually leading such operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before joining the State Department in the summer of 2007. Dailey said the American message was simple: “When you hold elections, there are certain benefits, like assistance in security and law enforcement and economic development. The three pillars of trying to defeat terrorism and build a good society are development, good governance and security. In Mauritania, they were moving in that direction. The coup was extremely disappointing.”

The junta tried to convince the world otherwise, claiming that Abdallahi had been weak on terrorism. The new leaders said that, by legalizing an Islamist party and meeting with moderate Islamists to request help in challenging the growing militant Salafist movement in the country, Abdallahi paved the way for a string of terrorist attacks in Mauritania over the past two years. The military’s charges were ignored by Washington, however.

To this day, Washington considers Abdallahi the legitimate president of Mauritania. Two capitals coexist: one in Nouakchott, where Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz occupies the presidential palace; and one in Abdallahi’s hometown, Lemden, where he lives in internal exile. (On the anniversary of Mauritania’s independence day, Bush sent Abdallahi a congratulatory letter there.) Even the vocabularies used in the two capitals are different: Abdallahi and his supporters slip the words “democracy” and “election” into every sentence, while the junta talks about “terrorism” and “Al Qaeda” at every turn.

Now, the junta waits for President Barack Obama to give the country a fresh look. “We hope that your new president, a young man with the interests of Africa in mind, will be more understanding of our situation,” Mohamed Ould Moine, the minister of communication, told me.

After all, the Realists don't think colored peoples capable of self-government.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2009 10:13 AM
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