Fresh on the heels of a New York Times article reporting on the Obama administration’s intention to scale back Washington’s role in the Middle East, last week’s suicide bombing in a Tunisian beach hotel in Sousse demonstrates just how far the United States has already distanced itself from the region.
Tunisia’s political deadlock, which worsened following the assassination of secular opposition leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi earlier this year, has further weakened the Islamist Ennahda-led government, allowing for the ascendance of more extremist factions, notably the terrorist organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia.
Clashes between Tunisian security forces and Islamist militants inside the country have become commonplace, but Wednesday’s incident—and a second attempt foiled that same day—indicates a threshold has been crossed. The only other suicide bombing in Tunisia was carried out by Al Qaeda in 2002 when 21 people were killed at a synagogue in Djerba.
This clear escalation of violence, however, does not seem to have ruffled many feathers in Washington.
“The U.S. has been slow to spot a number of underlying trends in countries in the region that have undergone, or are undergoing, transitions—including Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia,”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Century Foundation.
“Its attention to, and understanding of, Tunisia’s Salafi jihadists has been lacking even after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012. This makes it extremely difficult for the U.S. to formulate a coherent policy response.”
The U.S. has not shown much interest in Tunisia’s political transition, currently plagued by an indefinite suspension of the national dialogue.
Tunisia’s recently approved political roadmap, in addition to calling for a nonpartisan government and a new independent leader, also requires the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to finalize the country’s electoral law on November 8, set a date for elections on November 15, and finalize and pass the constitution on November 22.
This tight timetable was suspended Monday after delegates failed to reach a consensus on choosing a temporary prime minister. It will not resume until there are “favorable grounds for talks to succeed.”
The Long Haul
Despite the clear hurdles Tunisia faces, Washington is sticking to traditional diplomatic formalities and boilerplate statements. Jacob Walles, U.S. ambassador in Tunis, did meet with Ennahda party president Rachid al-Ghannouchi and Beji Caïd Essebsi, head of political party Nidaa Tounes, on Monday. Walles was also received by NCA president Mustapha Ben Jafaar on Tuesday.
However, according to the NCA statement about the meeting, Walles and Jaafar simply “discussed the political situation in the country, the national dialogue and ways to ensure its success.”
As for Washington’s response to last week’s suicide bombing, it appears the State Department only mentioned the incident in the context of a travel warning, rather than condemning the act by issuing a statement during that day’s press briefing.
Yet another telling sign the U.S. has shelved Tunisia is the fact that it does not appear on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s schedule for his trip to the region this week, despite including North African neighbors Algeria and Morocco.
Politically speaking, Tunisia certainly does have the “right ingredients to succeed.” There is no question, however, that an American foreign policy explicitly concerned with the country’s current trajectory would help to push it in the right direction.