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.
"Putting pressure on the regime is not easy. Comfortably supported by oil industry income, the elite is almost impervious to economic or political persuasion," said Gareth Evans, International Crisis Group president and former Australian foreign minister. "But Algeria is a social and economic time bomb."
The Bush administration is pressing Algeria on a troublesome regional conflict in the Western Sahara and on domestic reforms, though a senior State Department official conceded that "there are serious questions" about whether Bouteflika will be able to carry out proposed changes.
"Bouteflika's popular credibility is limited, and he is severely constrained by the clique of army generals who truly call the shots in Algeria," said Mona Yacoubian in an analysis this month for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Bouteflika has promised to introduce reforms to address problems that include 30% unemployment, a housing shortage, economic malaise and corruption.
Oil and gas windfalls have yet to trickle down to the vast majority of Algeria's 31 million people, exacerbating discontent, Yacoubian said.
The timing of the White House meeting is particularly awkward, she said. The recent protests represent the most significant challenge to Algerian government authority in a decade. Bush's invitation will allow Algiers to portray the visit as "an expression of U.S. support, when precisely the opposite message should be sent," Yacoubian said.
The military justified its 1992 coup--which voided parliamentary elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front, a legal Islamic party--and a subsequent crackdown on the grounds that a fundamentalist Islamic party would threaten Algeria's secular constitution. The standoff led to the emergence of the militant Armed Islamic Group.
The ensuing clashes have left more than 100,000 dead. Over the last two years, the military has managed to push rebels into remote areas, although the death toll still reaches as high as 150 a month.
But the spring unrest marks a new phase. Triggered by the April 18 death of a Berber teenager in police custody, the demonstrations quickly spread from the predominantly Berber region of Kabyle to Algiers and other cities. This time, there is no major Islamic component or rhetoric.
"The international community must now abandon the illusion that Algeria's problems are solely an Islamic-military conflict," warns the International Crisis Group report.
Times researchers Robert Patrick and Robin Cochran contributed to this report.