There is growing evidence in Washington that the special relationship the Reagan administration has tried to cultivate with King Hassan of Morocco may backfire badly, undermining rather than assuring US interests in North Africa and threatening rather than preserving the King himself, one of America's longest surviving Arab friends.
The mysterious death of the King's military and intelligence chief and the arrests of several Moroccan officers two months ago have raised doubts about the stability of the King's regime. At a congressional hearing on March 15 a State Department official failed to convince congressmen that administration policies are helping to solve Morocco's serious political and economic difficulties, or to keep the King as secure as ''he was 10 years ago.''
A recent report by a House staff mission to North Africa warns that the administration's enthusiasm for the King may become a ''kiss of death.'' A number of US officials quietly accept this assessment. They argue that the current US ambassador to Morocco, Joseph Reed, is doing far more harm than good by exaggerating US offers of helpfulness to Morocco, and creating the impression that the US is committed to providing the King with a personal ''security umbrella'' in case of external or internal challenge.
A new Congressional Budget Office report expressing skepticism about the strategic value of the 1982 US-Morocco military agreement has also encouraged congressmen to cut the administration's 1983 and 1984 military aid requests for Morocco. A first vote on these is expected in early April.
Last year, just before the signing of the still secret US-Morocco agreement, the House subcommittee on Africa voted to eliminate subsidized loans for US arms purchases by Morocco and cut in half the total military sales credits offered by the administration -- from $100 million to $50 million. This action was supported by the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, which also imposed tough restrictions on US military involvement in Morocco's war against the Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara.
Working behind the scenes in the Senate, however, Morocco's supporters, led by Sen. Robert Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, were able to eliminate the restrictions and restore the full $100 million, including $25 million in an outright grant the administration had not requested. This was done in a closed-door conference last December, where, several participants say, Kasten added money for Morocco which the other conferees did not notice or approve.
Because the administration has since run short of cash for military aid to El Salvador, more than half Morocco's windfall has been diverted, obliging the administration to request congressional approval of a supplemental request for the 1983 funds. This has come up at the same time as the administration is proposing to increase Morocco's 1984 military grant to $30 million, together with $60 million in military loans, and $28 million in separate funds to be spent on secret facilities at Moroccan air bases.
Critics of Reagan administration policy towards Morocco believe this military generosity undermines the professed neutrality of the US toward the war in the Sahara and discourages King Hassan from negotiating a compromise settlement with the Polisario and its principal supporter in the six-year old desert war, Algeria. But despite the recent summit meeting between Hassan and Algeria's president, Chadli Bendjedid, there is no sign Morocco's intransigence on the Saharan issue has softened. The US position, as expressed at the March 15 hearing, appeared to support that intransi-gence.
A US ''tilt'' can only lead, critics argue, to more direct Soviet, Cuban, or Libyan involvement in the conflict. It can also seriously damage US interests in growing trade and investment with Algeria. The US economic stake in Algeria is much larger than that in Morocco.
The administration's one-sided backing for Hassan and its emphasis on military rather than economic aid for Morocco were undoubtedly elements in the political mystery that surfaced in Morocco a short while ago.
On Jan. 25, Gen. Ahmed Dlimi, commander of Morocco's armed forces and head of the King's intelligence and security agencies, was killed in what was allegedly a car accident near Marrakesh. But the evidence of what happened has been suppressed, key witnesses are missing, and a French journalist who reported on the mystery surrounding the death was expelled after several days' interrogation by the Moroccan police. The report of a second death, of Ahmed Doukalli, an aide to the King, only days after Dlimi's death, has strained the credibility of Moroccan claims that it, too, was an accident.
Reports in Rabat and Washington indicate that Hassan began a purge of his top security commands just before Dlimi's death, and that the general's fate was connected to the King's often expressed belief that his military officers were plotting against him. According to Moroccan sources, Dlimi was close to French intelligence and hostile to the growing influence with the King of the CIA. Whether or not he was plotting a coup d'etat, the contest between US and French intelligence is said in Rabat to have led to Dlimi's death. Officials at the US Embassy in Rabat have expressed open hostility toward the French for many months.
This is the ''kiss of death'' that some US officials believe the administration is mistakenly offering Hassan. They fear he will become increasingly identified by Moroccans as the protege, or the puppet, of the Reagan administration. The military supply relationship has already stimulated public demonstrations of anti-Americanism in the country. This is a serious liability for Hassan, because it undermines the legitimacy of his claims to represent Moroccan independence and Arab nationalism, the ideological underpinnings of his policy in the Sahara.
The administration appears to be unaware that its embrace may produce an internal crisis for the Moroccan monarchy.