NEW YORK TIMES
RENDEZ VOUS BLOG

By HARVEY MORRIS
LONDON – Anti-American protests that this week spread across the Arab world overshadowed Washington’s latest steps to cement its ties with one of its closest allies in the region, Morocco.

The North African kingdom is regarded by the United States and Europe as an island of stability in a sea of troubles.

Muslim demonstrators rallied outside the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, to condemn a U.S-made video insulting Islam. But the protest was small, spontaneous and peaceful, and faced a heavy police presence, unlike more violent outbursts of anger elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The day after Americans learned of the deaths of four embassy staff in Libya, a senior Moroccan official was at the State Department for the launch of a strategic dialogue on expanding an already close and long-standing relationship.

It was an occasion for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Secretary of State, to praise Morocco as a “leader and a model” in a region where the U.S. needed a strong, reliable and influential ally.

The U.S. has had a free trade agreement with Morocco since 2004, the same year the kingdom was accorded the status of Major Non-Nato Ally, a designation reflecting the close strategic ties between the two countries.

The relationship has grown in importance for Washington since the revolutions that toppled leaders elsewhere in North Africa, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI skillfully negotiated the challenges of the so-called Arab Spring by holding a constitutional referendum on political reforms in the face of popular protests, followed by multi-party elections last November.

According to Antonin Tisseron, a security specialist at Europe’s Thomas Moore institute, Washington’s interest in a tighter relationship with Rabat is focused on the battle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

“In the context of the assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the uncertainties about Tunisia and Egypt, and the specter of the ‘Afghanization’ of northern Mali,” he wrote this week, “the kingdom appears to be an important, if not essential partner.”

Morocco is seen as an increasingly vital bulwark against the threat of instability spreading from Mali after the northern half of the central African state fell under the control of militant, foreign-sponsored radical Islamist movements.

That is coupled with a wider perceived threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its North African affiliates. Europe is particularly concerned about the additional challenge posed by narcotics and people-smugglers active in the region.

One European commentator suggested this week that the impetus for closer U.S.-Moroccan ties was part of Washington’s wider strategic policy towards the Middle East.

“The U.S. wants to make its Moroccan ally the second player in the strategy it has adopted towards the Arab-Muslim geopolitical space,” wrote Pedro Canales in Spain’s El Imparcial.

“The Wahhabi monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the Alawi monarchy in Morocco form the poles of support for American intervention in the ‘Arab Spring’.”

America’s ties with Morocco predate all others with the Arab world. As Hillary Clinton recalled on Thursday, Morocco was the first nation to recognize American independence in 1777. And Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, “fell in love with the region” after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.

For the pan-African daily, Le Griot, the timing of the strategic dialogue was no accident but one that was dictated by events.

“Viewed as a pivot of stability in a troubled North Africa, Morocco is positioning itself as a central player in a renewal of America’s North African policy, one that is more inclusive and less intrusive.”

.