Western Sahara – Serious, Credible, Realistic? – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
May 6, 2016

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

“Serious, credible and realistic.” These are the words routinely used by the Obama Administration to describe Morocco’s 2007 compromise political initiative – based on continued Moroccan sovereignty and broad autonomy for the local population — to resolve the four-decades-old Western Sahara problem.

However, at this point, it is worth asking whether the Obama Administration’s execution of its declared policy is itself either serious, credible or realistic.

The current dust-up between Ban Ki-moon, Morocco and the Security Council over the renewal of the UN peacekeeping mandate for the region brings into sharp relief the incoherence and inconsistency of a US approach that now seems only to lurch from one crisis over this issue to the next – unable to commit itself to actions that would support a resolution based on a policy that was first conceived and  initiated in the second Clinton Administration and has been the official US stance on Western Sahara ever since.

In truth, the Obama Administration has done little to advance this US policy, while at the same time using the continuing problem in the Sahara to demand one concession after another from its Moroccan ally, giving little in return except yet further demands and, arguably, increasing comfort to Morocco’s adversaries in Algeria.  Adversaries who very clearly seek nothing more than to continue the problem – all the better to irritate Morocco’s relationships with its presumably close friends in places like America.

This is utter foolishness and speaks of a foreign policy approach that lacks sound principle and professional execution.

Too many in the Obama Administration (and, in all fairness, in the Bush Administration that went before) have been content in the belief that the Sahara problem could be ignored by simply sustaining the status quo in the region from one year to the next. This not only defies recognition of the seriously deteriorating security situation engulfing the entire Sahara/Sahel region since 2011;it also ignores the increasing evidence accumulating since 2013 that seeking to do the minimum necessary is driving an ever deeper and more serious wedge into our relationship with our oldest and closest ally in the MENA region.

It was a wedge of similar proportions in that same relationship that was the driver behind the fundamental shift in US policy on the Sahara in 1999, during the second Clinton term of office. At that time, the US finally came to the astute realization that the idea of holding a referendum on the future of Western Sahara was fundamentally flawed and bound to create only more tension and conflict in the region. Trying to push it forward through intractable disagreements over who should be allowed to vote was ruining our relationship with Morocco, which was committed to the referendum, but only if all legitimate local stakeholders were allowed to vote. Instead, the US decided to abandon a failed policy and attempt to persuade the parties that what was needed was a fundamental political compromise. The US formula for that solution, made in the USA, was continued Moroccan sovereignty in the territory and a broad autonomy for those living there. In the end, Morocco agreed, but the Algerians and Polisario have insisted continuously on a referendum where only their preferred voters get a shot at the ballot box.

It will come as no surprise to the leadership in Algeria or the Polisario to hear that US policy on the Sahara supports a compromise political solution based on the sovereignty/autonomy tradeoff.  Indeed, they have heard that message since I first helped deliver it directly to them in 1999. They have also heard every statement from countless US senior officials since 2007, including two US Presidents, describing the Moroccan autonomy initiative as “serious, credible and realistic.”

The problem here is that neither Algeria nor the Polisario has any good reason to believe that what the US says is what it really means.  They are well within reason to doubt the US commitment to this policy, since they see nothing by way of concrete, tangible US support in Morocco for the policy it declares to be its own. Instead, they see the Obama Administration responding positively to Algerian and Polisario complaints and seeking to leverage concessions from Morocco that benefit none except those who wish to see the problem continue indefinitely. It is high time to put a stop to this folly.

Morocco is already laying the groundwork in the Sahara for its autonomy initiative through a massive program of investment and decentralization of political authority to locally elected leaders. It might help persuade Algeria, and their Polisario puppets, that we mean what we say if we take a positive and robust approach to helping Morocco execute its part of the deal with the United States about what most needs doing in the Sahara. Standing back and offering inane excuses for doing only the very minimum will surely provide further encouragement to the nay-sayers  next door. Doing nothing will also deepen the wedge between Washington and Rabat. Why would we want to do that when the Moroccans have systematically been doing what we encouraged them to do to resolve this issue in a manner that we said was the best way forward?

It is time for the Obama Administration to get “serious, credible and realistic” in its Sahara policy before it turns the opportunity over to yet another US Administration. A helpful, mutually productive and cooperative relationship with an old, trusted and close ally in the Arab World would be a novel legacy for this Administration, but a welcome one.


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