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Algerian Leader's Visit Signals Shift in U.S. Stance

Policy: Bush moves to expand diplomatic and business ties with the oil-rich nation despite human rights and democracy issues.

July 12, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — At a time when Algeria's authoritarian government is under fire for failing to make progress on reform, President Bush today launches a policy initiative to expand U.S. diplomatic and business ties with the oil-rich North African nation by welcoming its president to the White House.

The overture signals a shift in foreign policy priorities to business and investment opportunities over human rights and democracy issues, some U.S. analysts charge.

It also echoes the long-held stance of Vice President Dick Cheney, who cultivated ties to the Algerian government in his last job: chief executive of Halliburton Co., an energy services conglomerate.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the first Algerian leader invited to Washington since 1985. Previous U.S. administrations have been reluctant to meet with Bouteflika and his predecessors, even at the annual U.N. General Assembly opening sessions, particularly after a 1992 military coup aborted a short-lived experiment with democracy in Algeria. In the past, the U.S. has kept dialogue at the ambassadorial level.

The White House meeting takes place just as human rights groups and conflict-prevention organizations have been blasting Algeria for the alleged brutality of its security forces, the disappearance of thousands of people over the last decade, widespread corruption and a new ban on pro-democracy demonstrations.

More than a million demonstrators joined in protests against the Bouteflika government last month in the largest public outpouring since Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. All subsequent protests were outlawed.

A report issued this week by the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said the U.S. can no longer "remain indifferent to the Algerian tragedy," which it called a "time bomb."

But White House officials said a dialogue with Algeria can promote change.

"There are ways to engage and push in the right direction," said a senior administration official who requested anonymity. "In a country of bad choices, [Bouteflika] is the best mechanism to move toward reform in the future."

Foreign policy analysts see a strong Cheney influence in the administration's Algeria initiative.

"Algeria is the most explicit example that the priorities of this administration are in business and financial terms, not democracy, social change or human rights," said John Entelis, an expert on Algeria and director of Middle East studies at Fordham University in New York. "Business interests now fuse with political interests with Cheney as vice president."

A White House media official Wednesday said the vice president did not have an "unusual" degree of input in the new engagement policy. Cheney is "active every day" as a member of the National Security Council and in formulating foreign policy, the official said, and the engagement policy is "a product of NSC decision-making."

The White House would not discuss Cheney's involvement more specifically.

During Cheney's tenure at Halliburton, from 1995 to last August, the company's Algerian operations were its most profitable overseas venture, according to a 1999 U.S. Embassy cable to Washington.

In fiscal 2000, one Halliburton subsidiary accounted for more than half of the $267.5 million in loans and guarantees issued by the Export-Import Bank for projects in Algeria.

As the company's chief executive, Cheney met twice with Bouteflika and traveled to Algiers, the capital, where he pushed for stronger bilateral ties, including U.S. military cooperation. After meeting with Bouteflika in May 2000, Cheney told Algerian radio that relations between the two nations were important and "getting better," in part because of the number of U.S. companies investing there.

"There is no reason why relations between the two countries should not be good," he said.

Cheney left Halliburton last year to run for vice president and subsequently sold his stock in the company and donated his stock options to charity.

The Bush administration is focused on broadening opportunities for U.S. investment in Algeria's energy sector. The country's proven oil reserves, ranked 15th worldwide, and natural gas, ranked eighth, are widely considered to be understated.

About 25 energy companies from 20 countries operate in Algeria. Most of the foreign investors are based in Europe, but a few are American. Besides Halliburton, they include Anadarko Petroleum, Burlington Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. The foreign energy firms must form partnerships with Algeria's state-owned petroleum company, Sonatrach.

Human rights groups fear that encouraging investment will only prop up the regime longer--and risk a backlash against Western interests down the road.

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