Part 2 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

The Obama Administrations has few illusions about [Tunisian President] Ben Ali. Remember even what I would describe as our least eminent president, George Bush, found it necessary to make a public criticism of Ben Ali to his face not that long ago!

The problem is this: the U.S. would like to see change in Tunisia, but only that change that supports the status quo; the cables suggest that Washington no longer cares that much about Ben Ali today nor sees him as particularly effective in helping realize US strategic goals, but they are concerned with who might replace him.

That is the problem…those damned reformed movements! You can never tell which way they will go and if they will, either economically or strategically go off in another direction. After all, look at those Latin Americans — Ecuadorians, Venezualans, even Brazil, Bolivia and Chile all seeking their own path to development, snubbing the World Bank, IMF etc. An “uncontrolled” reform in Tunisia could well have consequences far beyond the little country itself, thus one must (or the State Department must) tread carefully.

The State Department seems to be probing a suitable replacement, one that will follow the broad guide lines of U.S. foreign policy (privatization and openness of the economy, support for the war on terrorism) and for Tunisia to play a role in U.S. strategic and military goals (they have merged) in the Middle East and North Africa.

It would do Tunisians, even Ben Ali (!) well to recall how many U.S. allies different American administrations have discarded…the list is long and I will only mention a few: the Diem regime in the 1960s, Noriega of Panama — first a key U.S. ally, now rotting in a jail in Florida — the most famous ally-turned-enemy Bin Laden, Marcos of the Philippines.

Although Habib Bourguiba bent the national will to accommodate the United States in many ways, in the end, it didn’t seem to matter. He had carefully cultivated U.S. support from the outset, even during the colonial period as a wedge against the French, and did so brilliantly. I have little doubt that the presence of the Peace Corps in Tunisia (in which I participated so long ago) was a concession to the U.S. made specifically to irritate the French (which it did).

In any case, Bourguiba thought all that kowtowing to Washington would keep Tunisia safe from some kind of U.S. (and or Israeli) military action. But then there was the Israeli strike on the Palestinian headquarters in Tunis, something that was inconceivable without U.S. approval. Reagan didn’t hesitate to turn on Bourguiba when he thought it necessary. It left Bourguiba extremely bitter; it also revealed how “flexible” Washington could be with allies they no longer felt useful, and that such figures are “expendable.” Add to this that while it is unclear just how involved the U.S. was with the coup that unseated Bourguiba in 1987, it has to be a bit more than coincidental that Ben Ali got some of his police training in the USA.

An alternative to Ben Ali?

At a certain point reading the cables, it occurred to me: they’re looking for an alternative to Ben Ali, they think “his goose is cooked” and are probing Tunisian society to find a viable alternative.

Admittedly this is just a hypothesis, and here I am sitting in Denver, high in the Rockies, speculating about Tunisia. But reading the cables over, it comes through loud and clear. How so?

  • In the cables there is open admission of the overall crisis in Tunisian society, and the opposition to Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family.
  • The events of Redeyef in 2008 are noted with the fear that it might just be the opening salvo of a deeper social crisis that the US should prepare for.
  • There are several notes that the US “cannot do anything” until the “post Ben Ali” era opens. That relations with Ben Ali are jog jammed at present.
  • But in its own way, the dinner with Sakhi and Nesrine Ben Ali Materi was not as vapid, or empty as I suggested above. It seems that the U.S. ambassador was feeling Materi out…as a possible replacement for his father-in-law. Materi impresses the ambassador that the censorship of the Tunisian media is “too much,” he suggests that his media (he owns one of the country’s two radio stations) is not afraid to hear critical voices. On Middle-East policy — Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq — he basically follows U.S. foreign policy to the letter. Even the comments about Nesrine are interesting. If she is “naive and clueless” perhaps she will not play the kind of nefarious role of running her husband as Leila Trabelsi has with Ben Ali!

Did the ambassador “decide” that Sakhi Materi “should” replace his uncle Ben Ali…No, that is not how things work. I would guess the ambassador is “shopping around,” getting a feel for who within Tunisia’s ruling circles might cooperate with U.S. policy and if and when “the right moment” presents itself, that the U.S. would “encourage” one of a number of “candidates” for power. And of course the French, the British and a number of other foreign embassies are doing precisely the same thing. After all, the few reports we get about Ben Ali, that he has cancer, that he spends an inordinate amount of time with his grandchildren, that the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families run only the economy today (and are frantically trying to buy up, steal what they don’t own, also in preparation for a change in power?) and that Zine Ben Ali is showing signs of senility not unlike Bourguiba manifested in 1986. So… the vultures are swarming.

That is what a careful reading of the WikiLeaks documents suggests. Do they scream it out loud? No…but re-read the cables and see if I am off the mark? So there is far more there than meets the eye, and I have to admit that . . . the State Department’s take on what is happening in [Tunisia] is less stupid than I originally imagined.

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