Algeria: the rise of centrism

BOTH Algeria and the United States stand to benefit from this week's four-day visit to Washington by Algerian President Chadli Benjedid. For Algeria the potential benefits are both short and long range. In the short run, there is the prospect of obtaining some arms from the US: President Reagan this week declared Algeria eligible for military purchases. Algeria wants to move away from its past dependence on Soviet arms.

The prospective long-term benefit is more important. Algeria is trying to move toward a genuinely nonaligned position in world affairs. For years the North African nation has been perceived as closely allied with the East bloc, in part due to its socialist state and the strident rhetoric of its early years: It won independence from France in 1962.

Since President Chadli assumed office in 1979 he has cautiously moved Algeria along a more pragmatic and less rhetorical course, steering it back toward the center both in domestic programs and international relations. His visit to Washington is another step in this centrist direction.

Algeria and several neighboring nations are concerned about the prospect of strong superpower alignments in North Africa; thus President Chadli's nonaligned move is in part an effort to distance Algeria from the Soviet Union.

From the perspective of the US, the major benefit of the visit is for the Reagan administration to have had the opportunity to increase its influence slightly with Algeria, which is listened to by many Middle Eastern nations. Algeria could thus play a key role in a future American initiative in the Middle East: It is widely credited with having played the pivotal diplomatic role in obtaining release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981. The warm American reception of President Chadli has set the right tone.

Washington is aware that it must tread gingerly, however, in improving its relations with Algeria, lest it upset Morocco, a longtime US ally and enemy of Algeria. For years, Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario have been waging an armed contest for possession of the Western Sahara: The US is trying to persuade both sides to reach a diplomatic accommodation, and they are making efforts in that direction. There may be a role for the US to play in private in edging both sides toward agreement.

Morocco, however, recently allied itself by treaty with Libya's quixotic strong-man ruler, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Both American and Algerian officials distrust him, despite Moroccan assertions that they can have a moderating influence on him, which many Western diplomats think unlikely.

Whether or not the long-term relationship pans out, the United States can only be pleased to see a nation move into the nonaligned camp after years of having been aligned with the Soviet Union. ----30--{et

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