- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2015

In a meeting Thursday with the newly elected leader of Tunisia, President Obama pledged that the U.S. will work to “stabilize” Libya so that Islamist extremists won’t further threaten the fledgling democracy in Tunis.

Mr. Obama told Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi in the Oval Office meeting that his administration wants to work with Tunisia to “stabilize Libya so we don’t have a failed state, a power vacuum that ends up affecting the situation in Tunisia.”

The Islamic State has set up a base of operations in Libya, on Tunisia’s eastern border, marking the first major expansion of the terrorist group into North Africa. Nearly 3,000 Tunisian youth have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State, and the group claimed responsibility for a March 18 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which killed 22 civilians, mostly foreign tourists.

Mr. Essebsi warned that Tunisia’s progress is being threatened by those who oppose democratic principles, and by the chaos in neighboring Libya.

“We need the U.S. and maybe the U.S. needs Tunisia now,” Mr. Essebsi said through a translator.

The administration announced that the U.S. intends to designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally, a status that Mr. Obama has not granted to some other Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the move is partly due to Tunisia’s “legacy” relationship as an ally of the U.S. dating back to 1799.

“We also have an important an valuable security relationship with Tunisia,” he said. “The ties between our two countries are strong and important to the citizens of both of our countries. They have pursued bravely a democratic path.”

The U.S. has provided more than $100 million in security assistance to Tunisia since it launched the region-wide “Arab spring” revolution in 2011. The administration is seeking to provide an additional $30 million in foreign military financing this year for Tunisia this year, a 50 percent increase over last year, to support its efforts at counter-terrorism and border security.

Overall, the U.S. has provided about $570 million to Tunisia in the past four years, including about $300 million in economic aid, $175 million in military aid and $80 million for democracy-building. The administration is proposing a total aid package of $134 million for fiscal 2016.

Jim Phillips, a specialist on national security and foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, said Tunisia “faces a mounting threat from Islamist extremists, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State, which have put down roots in neighboring Libya and have attracted the support of many Tunisian Islamist militants.”

“Tunisia will need U.S. and western support to continue its fragile democratic transition without being derailed by Islamist terrorists,” Mr. Phillips said. “By naming Tunisia a major non-NATO ally, the Obama administration is making it eligible for increased strategic cooperation, participation in counterterrorism initiatives, priority delivery of military surplus items, loans of equipment, training, and access to American financing for buying U.S. military equipment.”

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