Washington’s policy towards Tunisia is a small litmus test of whether the United States wants to remain a great power.
A “great power” is a country that has important interests beyond its borders and the wherewithal and willingness to defend them. This is why Finland, for all of its impressive economic and social success, is not a great power. This is why French leaders sought so hard in the decades following the second world war to maintain influence and a security presence in West Africa: France was determined to preserve at least the trappings of “great power” status.
That the United States has important interests overseas is not in doubt. Neither is the fact that the United States has the wherewithal — militarily, economically, diplomatically — to defend those interests. The question, and for many the concern, is whether the United States has the willingness to defend those interests.
The administration of President George W. Bush certainly had the willingness to partake in foreign ventures, ostensibly to defend US interests. The problem is that it did so recklessly and even delusionally, believing it could impose US values and systems on others. The result is that US interests were not defended. In fact, by shattering and fragmenting Iraq, the United States enhanced Iran’s regional influence.
The Obama administration responded to the costly recklessness of its predecessor by pivoting away from the Middle East and seeking to protect US interests elsewhere through multilateralism and sweeping trade deals. Barack Obama’s hands-off approach to Syria, even after Moscow directly intervened, epitomised the new policy.
Now it’s US President Donald Trump’s turn to shape US policy. Trump knows that the United States has interests overseas but he sees the defence of these interests in immediate and narrow transactional terms: What’s in it for the United States today? If we spend money, will we get more in return?
This is where Tunisia serves as a litmus test of whether the United States can 1) recognise long-term overseas interests and 2) is willing to defend these interests. Tunisia is the one “Arab spring” success story but a fragile one. Tunisians on their own have created the kind of society and government that Bush tried to install at gunpoint. If the entire Middle East were like Tunisia… well, we can only dream.
Trump’s proposal to dramatically cut US aid to Tunisia is, in its own way, as reckless as Bush’s military escapade. It is hard to think of a cheaper and less dangerous way to defend US interests than by helping Tunisians succeed in their democratic experiment.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.