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Western Sahara –The US Congress Strikes Again While State Still Dithers – Robert M. Holley

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US Capitol, Washington DC Photo: Jordan Uhl

Robert M. Holley
April 10, 2018

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

For the past five years one of Morocco’s main goals with US policymakers has been to persuade official Washington that it could advance prospects for a “mutually agreed political solution” in Western Sahara by helping them to improve the quality of life for the residents of the region and help the Moroccan Government in its efforts to prepare the region for autonomy by providing appropriate assistance to Morocco’s own efforts to transfer power and authority to local government through their advanced regionalization program and to encourage private sector investment in the region’s many growing business opportunities.

That effort was given substantial traction when King Mohammed VI met with President Obama in Washington in November 2013 and the two Heads of State importantly pledged in their joint communiqué to work together to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.  Before that meeting, officials at the State Department had strenuously resisted any commitment of US Government assistance to the region.  Sadly, that resistance continued, not only at senior policy levels within State’s bureaucracy, but also within the Obama White House where the most senior National Security officials were clearly opposed to their President’s decision and actively sought ways to delay or derail any such effort. To say that we were astonished that the President’s decision would carry so little weight within his own Administration would be an understatement. As a former Foreign Service officer, I was incredulous that State and the National Security Council bureaucracy would so blatantly ignore an important Presidential commitment.

That did not stop the US Congress, where sentiment supporting Morocco’s autonomy initiative as the only viable solution to the Western Sahara had been growing substantially over the years through persistent efforts to educate key members of both political parties and key committees on the facts of the situation in the region.  Congress had already produced bipartisan majority letters from both Houses of Congress to the President and the Secretary of State urging the Executive Branch to fully support the Moroccan autonomy initiative as the only viable solution to the problem. But despite this strong bipartisan support in Congress, State and the NSC continued to pursue a status quo approach to the issue and categorically refused to take any action they deemed might be viewed as choosing sides among the Parties. They remained wholly indifferent to the argument that their inaction was inconsistent with a declared US policy favoring a compromise political solution and their own praise for Morocco’s autonomy initiative as “serious, credible and realistic.” Their commitment to doing nothing to advance prospects for such a solution and everything possible to ensure the continuance of a long stalemated status quo was breathtaking.  Not to mention again ignoring a Presidential decision.

Key leadership in both the House and Senate were sympathetic to the complaint that the Administration bureaucracy was backtracking on the President’s commitment and this eventually resulted in Congress including explanatory report language in its yearly appropriations law encouraging the Administration to support the Moroccan autonomy initiative by making US assistance available in Western Sahara.  This kind of report language accompanying a budget law is usually taken by the Executive Branch as a strong indication that lack of follow up action is likely to have unhappy consequences for the Administration if it is ignored.  Again, to our utter astonishment the State Department went blithely on its way supporting the status quo, pretending this clear “encouragement” from Congress could be ignored.  That only emboldened Congress. The following year, Congress strengthened its “report language” in the annual appropriations bill urging the State Department to take action on assistance to Western Sahara. And once again, the State Department not only resisted the inclusion of the language in the report, but completely ignored it when they lost the contest. The following year, despite State’s equally persistent effort to derail the move, Congress decided not to give the State Department the option to ignore its wishes and wrote into the appropriations law a provision, which required the State Department to extend its assistance program to the region. This was now no longer optional for the State Department.  They were required by law to do what Congress had been encouraging them to do for years and to report to Congress the steps they were taking to enact this provision of the law.

In the end, the State Department had been compelled to comply with the law over its strenuous objections, but again State tried to slow roll its implementation as long as possible. What finally resulted was a program to assist civil society capacity building efforts in Western Sahara. The program was among Morocco’s top priorities, but it was only one of the actions that Congress had encouraged the Administration to support them. Clearly, having lost the contest to prevent action of any kind, State decided to take a minimalist approach to its implementation and plead to Congress that it was doing what was required by law. State in its best, most effective passive resistance mode.

The following year, Congress once again provided no wiggle room for the State Department and again included in the law that these assistance efforts in Western Sahara should continue. Congress went further and tried to expand these efforts and require the State Department by law to undertake additional measures that they believed would help create a more conducive climate for negotiating a compromise political solution in Western Sahara. Among Congress’s important objectives was to compel the State Department to take seriously the often repeated United Nations Security Council urging that both Algeria and the Polisario cooperate and allow the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct a census and identification project in the Polisario refugee camps in southern Algeria.  In the opinion of many experts, Polisario had been grossly exaggerating the number of refugees actually resident in the camps for years in the interest of obtaining excess international assistance which it had been selling on the black market.  This widespread fraud and abuse of humanitarian assistance had been well documented by the European anti-fraud agency. Further, disputes over the actual identity of large numbers of people in the refugee camps was equally in question.  The only way to settle the matter was to allow UNHCR to conduct an objective and verifiable census and identity project in the camps, something which both Algeria and the Polisario categorically refused. Congress felt it important to include in the law a provision which would require the State Department to undertake policy initiatives to support the repeated Security Council urgings that such action on the census should go forward and to report to Congress the results of these actions.

Again, the State Department resisted the inclusion of such language in what was then this year’s pending Appropriations Bill.  Supporters of good Moroccan-American relations in Congress understood the importance of this measure for both policy reasons and because it was clear from unimpeachable official sources in Europe that humanitarian assistance efforts which depended heavily on US taxpayer dollars for funding were being wasted and abused. This year’s draft Appropriations Bill in the US House of Representatives included clear and unambiguous language that would have required the State Department to undertake these policy initiatives. In the US Senate, there was also strong support for the inclusion of this provision, despite resistance from the State Department. .

As of November 2017 Morocco was reassured of the passage of this language in Congress, but something went wrong. It is too bad the final bill did not include language to compel State to stop dithering on the census issue and undertake concrete policy measures to support and implement what the Security Council had been urging for years.

As it has now for nearly a half dozen years, Congress did continue the requirement that the State Department continue to fund assistance programs in Western Sahara.  Morocco knows it has a friend in the United States Congress, because they see it the interest of the US to ensure that Morocco maintains it territorial integrity, including the Western Sahara.

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