August 14, 2008

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, examines the background and implications of the military coup d’état that overthrew the government of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of Mauritania, who was elected just last year in the northwest African country’s first-ever democratic poll.

After reviewing Mauritania’s political history as well as its strategic significance—including its geographical position bridging Arab North Africa and black Sub-Saharan Africa, its participation in the United States-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program, and the fact that it is one of only three members of the Arab League with full diplomatic relations with Israel—Dr. Pham notes the wider implications of the coup:

First, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated last week, as a matter of principle “we oppose any attempts by military elements to change governments through extra-constitutional means.” While President Abdallahi has managed to alienate not just the armed forces, but civilian politicians as well—witness the fact that 67 out of 95 parliamentarians repudiated assembly president Ould Boulkheir’s post-coup statement of support for the head of state—the cure the putschists adopted for his political maladroitness is worse than the ailment. Second, should the African Union, subregional organizations on the continent, and individual African states fail to act effectively in the defense of a legitimate, constitutional, democratically-elected government, it could well shred what tattered credibility the AU has left in the wake of its disgraceful acquiescence to Robert Mugabe’s violent theft of the Zimbabwean election...Suspending Mauritania’s membership in the toothless AU—as Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe, whose country holds the pan-African organization’s rotating presidency, announced—is a first step, but only that. Third,…while the choice to include moderate Islamists in the political process is a weighty one and not without its perils, there is a distinction between “Islamist” and “Islamic” and the wholesale marginalization of the latter in traditionalist societies such as Mauritania’s is hardly the recipe for a stable, much less legitimate, government. Fourth, while the United States clearly has an interest in combating Islamist extremism in the vast spaces where the Maghreb meets the Sahel, if any lesson has been learned from our bitter experience in the Middle East, it is that, in general, we cannot achieve our strategic objectives by making—or even being perceived by the masses as making—Faustian bargains with unelected strongmen.

In a conclusion that is reinforced by the late-breaking attempt by Abdelmalik Droukdal, leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to exploit the coup to call on Mauritanians to take up arms, Dr. Pham argues:

In 2005, Colonel [Ely Ould Mohamed] Vall deposed a longtime authoritarian despot, promising to open the way for a democratic transition. To his credit, Vall kept his promise. Last week General Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew a president democratically elected less than two years ago and then turns around and promises to “ restart the democratic process on a permanent foundation .” Maybe he means it. But, given the changed circumstances as well as the overall struggle against terrorism and other forms of Islamist extremism, can the United States and other members of the international community really afford to give him the benefit of the doubt?

To read the full text of the article, “ Mauritania: Progress Hijacked,” click here.