For a quarter century if not more, the United States has lacked a clear foreign policy strategy. Successive Secretaries of State have confused miles traveled with effectiveness on the world stage. Too often, the White House reacts to events rather than proactively prepares for them. The Arab Spring blindsided the State Department and Pentagon. After Tunisia’s government fell, the Central Intelligence Agency’s concluded in its Presidential Daily Brief that unrest would not spread to Egypt. Libya, Syria, and Yemen each caught the White House, Pentagon, and State Department off-guard, as did the rise if the Islamic State. Ditto the coup attempt in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s subsequent over-the-top crackdown.
As Presidential campaigns develop or refine strategies and positions on Syria, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and Iran, they might consider adding Algeria to the list. In 1991, Algeria descended into a brutal and bloody decade-long civil war as the military-dominated government refused to abide by elections won by an Islamist party which, after its victory, pledged to rewrite the constitution–hence the quip by Assistant Secretary Edward Djerejian that the U.S. could not support a system of “one person, one vote, one time.”
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, became Algeria’s president in 1999. He oversaw the end of the civil war with a combination of amnesty and brutal suppression, and then moved to solidify his own control by purging opposition within the military and intelligence services while simultaneously co-opting other officers by increasing salaries under the guise of increased security Bouteflika may have brought stability but, rather than reform, he simply reinforced the corrupt, military-dominated system under which Algeria had for decades stagnated. The Algerian economy remains centered on hydrocarbons and has never diversified, and so it has suffered in recent years with the decline in oil prices.
The 79-year-old Bouteflika is now in his fourth term and in poor health, and likely will not live much longer. While both the president’s brother Said and Tayeb Belaiz, currently minister of state and special advisor to the president, have been maneuvering to succeed him, Bouteflika’s removal or death could also unleash a multi-sided power struggle. Just as Hosni Mubarak discovered with respect to the Egyptian military, few in the Algerian military would embrace hereditary succession. Bouteflika’s weakness or death might lead some military factions long marginalized to try to regain power. Other disenfranchised elements—Salafists and other Islamists, disgruntled youth, and perhaps even elements loyal to the Islamic State—might also make a bid for power. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb has entrenched itself in southern Algeria, benefiting from both Algeria’s poor control outside of the coastal strip, where much of the population lives, as well as corruption in the Algerian military which just as enthusiastically tries to make a quick buck off the terrorist group as fight it.
Few U.S. politicians might think about Algeria, and fewer still might visit the country which through the Cold War embraced the Soviet Union and to the present day makes common cause with various radical groups and terror organizations. But, as Bouteflika’s departure opens a vacuum, the result might easily be renewed civil war and a Syria-like stalemate on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.