Slowly, quietly, Algeria has adopted a moderate foreign policy, veering from its former leftist stance in world affairs. An early sign of this shift came four years ago when Algeria, the world's 10th-largest nation, mediated the release of American hostages in Iran. But the change could come to fruition in mid-April when Algerian President Chadli Benjedid meets President Reagan in Washington.
Algerian diplomats explain that the new moderate stance is needed to keep North Africa free of superpower tensions, pointing to American support for Morocco and Soviet support for Libya as examples.
``Algeria's mending fences with the United States dramatizes the process which has led several major developing nations in recent years to seek a more equidistant position in world affairs, based on realism, than previously. This applies to China, India, Egypt, Indonesia, and to Algeria,'' says a West European ambassador.
President Chadli's visit to Washington will help normalize a relationship which, for nearly three decades, has been strewn with episodes of mutual suspicion as well as mutual sympathy, according to both American and Algerian sources.
``Unlike most third-world leaders, Chadli does not come to Washington looking for aid. Algeria's economy is basically sound. Chadli's trip is intended mainly to symbolize Algeria's new role as a moderator in international affairs rather than a leader of the radical wing of third-world countries which it played in the '60s and '70s,'' says an Algerian source.
In recent years, Algeria has devoted considerable efforts to mediating between Iran and Iraq, between Syria and Jordan, between pro- and anti-Arafat PLO factions, and between the various factions in Lebanon, according to Arab diplomats at the United Nations.
``Because Algeria, like Vietnam, achieved its independence through armed struggle, its credibility with the so-called `rejection front countries' [Syria, South Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Algeria, who rejected the Camp David accords] is high. Yet Algeria no longer belongs to that group,'' says a North African diplomat.
Under Chadli, a quiet man with bushy white hair and a grandfatherly profile, Algeria has moved toward reconciliation with Egypt, France, and the United States. His precessor, President Houari Boumedienne, who ruled from 1965 to 1978, went to Moscow three times but never to Washington. Chadli has traveled recently to Rome, Brussels, and Paris, and now prepares to shake hands with Ronald Reagan.
US-Algerian relations have gone through sharp ups and downs. In 1957, President Kennedy spoke in favor of Algeria's independence from France, which won the US many Algerian sympathies.
Algeria broke relations with the US in 1967 because of US support for Israeli in the Arab-Israeli war and resumed them in 1974. Despite marked political differences on international issues, trade between the two countries has flourished, amounting to $3.6 billion last year.
In 1980-81, Algeria played a decisive role in the release of 52 American hostages from Iran. This led to a spate of grateful phone calls by private US citizens to Algerian officials, and to favorable editorials.
At the same time, Algeria's past support of the PLO, Namibia's rebel movement, and guerrilla causes in Central America irritated American officials. Also, growing US military and political support of Morocco did not sit well with Algeria. President Carter tried to keep an evenhanded policy between Algeria and Morocco but Mr. Reagan has given Morocco's King Hassan II uncritical support, both in military aid and in diplomatic battles at the UN over ownership of the Western Sahara.
Nevertheless, Chadli kept toning down his predecessor's dogmatic approach and striving for a thaw with the US. Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi met with Vice-President Bush and with George Shultz two years ago in Washington. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige also paid a visit to Algiers. Last year for the first time, an American military mission led by Gen. Kenneth D. Burns went to Algeria.
Algeria, which depends heavily on the Soviet Union for military supplies, has tried to diversify its sources. It is negotiating military purchase agreements with France, West Germany, and is reported to be interested in purchasing American equipment for its Air Force. Algeria has already bought more than a dozen C-130 cargo planes, and trains some of its pilots in the US.
Algerian officials say they distrust Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, seeing him as a destabilizing force in North Africa. Indeed, Algeria wonders why the US has been so tolerant of Morocco's signing of a treaty last year with Libya in which the two nations plan a merger.
Since coming to power, Chadli has tried to mend fences with Morocco's King Hassan II over the issue of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. He believes one solution lies in forming a political and economic grouping of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and the Western Sahara -- a grouping that could resemble the Common Market. It would be known as the ``Maghreb Union.'' (``Maghreb'' means northwest Africa in Arabic.)
Chadli would like Hassan II to open talks with the Polisario, the group fighting Morocco's claims on the Western Sahara. And Chadli plans to ``suggest that the US use its influence with Hassan II in order to moderate his stance,'' an Algerian diplomat says.
Meanwhile, Tunisia is trying to convene a Maghreb summit meeting. And representatives from the Polisario, Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco began secret meetings last week in Paris to seek ways to resolve the Western Sahara problem peacefully, according to an informed West European source.
Chadli is not expected to ``lecture'' Reagan, Algerian officials say, but to inform himself about US objectives in such areas as the Mideast and Southern Africa.
He will arrive in Washington soon after visits by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, and just before the May summit in Bonn of Western leaders. Chadli wants to stress Algeria's role as an international bridge builder rather than a firebrand, according to Algerian sources.
``Chadli is not an ideologue,'' says a North African expert. ``He is sensitive to the needs of the average Algerian citizen. He has liberalized the largely state-controlled economy and strengthened the private sector.''