If there ever were a moment for the United States to anticipate events and act quickly and forcefully, it is the current one in Tunisia.
Tunisia is where the Arab Spring was born. And in contrast with the disappointing and sometimes disastrous outcomes from that moment in history in other nations, Tunisia has made major progress and could still be a significant success. Tunisia has written a modern constitution, seen the flowering of a vibrant civil society, elected a functioning government and created a truly competitive politics. It is a 99 percent Muslim nation committed to a secular society that respects all faiths. It is also the Arab nation that has been most committed to the equality of women.
The Arab world and Africa are watching Tunisia. We need Tunisia as the example of the profound success that women and men working together in a democratic society and in a private, open, inclusive economy can create in the region. We aren’t going to get such an example anywhere else.
At the same time, Tunisia faces enormous problems. Its civil society is recovering from years of authoritarian, kleptocratic government, which presided over major human rights abuses and a disastrous economy. The state remains way too large and too entangled in the private sector. Its regulatory processes are complex beyond belief, seriously inhibiting domestic and foreign investment. As a result of all this, Tunisia is struggling to escape a low-growth, low-investment trap that prevents it from meeting the legitimate aspirations of its people, especially its youth.
We think Tunisia can solve these problems. But it lives in a rough neighborhood, with a long border with Libya, and it is facing a terrorist onslaught. Two major attacks have been mounted in the past three months, killing more than 50 people. These attacks were clearly calculated to wreck the economy and undermine the morale of Tunisians, and the effort may well succeed; current estimates are that Tunisia will lose more than 2 million “tourist days” this year as a result. To be blunt, we do not believe Tunisia can solve its economic and security problems simultaneously without the United States as a committed partner.
We have no quarrel with U.S. policy to date. But circumstances have changed. Tunisia’s success has become far more fragile, and an intensified, higher-level policy is required. That policy should include the following pieces:
• Commitment: President Obama should phone President Beji Caid Essebsi as soon as possible to state the United States’ clear commitment to a long-term strategic partnership. Vice President Biden and key Cabinet members, including the secretaries of state, defense, homeland security and treasury, along with top legislators, should make early visits. Each leader should make clear that we look for Tunisia to continue a path to democracy, tolerance and equality.
• Security: Obama should convey to the Tunisians that the United States stands with them in meeting the terrorist challenge. In practical terms, this can mean three important steps: We will share available intelligence regarding terrorist activities in Tunisia’s neighborhood; we will help Tunisia develop a more-effective counterterrorist capability; and we will provide material counterterror and security-sector support.
• Economics: Obama should convey that the United States will help Tunisia meet its economic challenges. This should not mean foreign aid, which Tunisia doesn’t need, but the following:
• The United States should begin, immediately, formal negotiations toward a U.S.-Tunisian free-trade agreement. This would be of real consequence to the Tunisian economy, providing the carrot for Tunisia to make the hard economic decisions that it clearly must make, but would have only a marginal impact on the United States. Tunisia’s economy is 0.2 percent of the U.S. economy, equivalent to about one month’s growth at our current low rate.
• We should design with Tunisia a process to increase foreign and domestic investment, the only real way to improve the Tunisian economy. This could include increasing the Tunisian American Enterprise Fund, which was established by Congress and the Obama administration in 2012 (and is chaired by one of us, W. Bowman Cutter), to further invest in the private sector.
• Together with our friends in the European Union, the United States should convene official pledging and private investment conferences aimed at giving sustained, high-level attention to Tunisia’s social and economic requirements. These initiatives should be tied to policies that will help produce a competitive, free-market economy.
Both of us have held multiple jobs in the U.S. government. We are well aware of how close to impossible it can be to do anything new, or to do anything fast, or to do anything at all that involves complicated economic and security issues. The inertial pressures weighing against action are enormous. But if we do not do more, and do it quickly, 10 years from now the United States will bitterly regret that it failed to act when it had the chance to help Tunisia build an inclusive, prosperous and lasting democratic society.
Frank G. Wisner is an international affairs adviser at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs and former undersecretary of defense for policy and undersecretary of state for international security affairs. W. Bowman Cutter is a senior fellow and director of the Next American Economy Project at the Roosevelt Institute and a former deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton and former director of the National Economic Council.