So What Next for Western Sahara? – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
June 20, 2016
Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

After the recent passing of Mohamed Abdelaziz, leader of the Polisario for the last four decades, it is clear there will be a change in what poses as leadership in Rabouni, but will there be any change of heart?

Confidential sources tell us that the real leadership of this movement in Algiers has already decided who will replace Abdelaziz. That announcement is expected soon when the Polisario convenes its extraordinary inner clique convention to rubber stamp their master’s choice.

Mind you, it is not as though there is going to be an election or anything similar. The Polisario constitution only allows one party – and even that one doesn’t really matter.

The real question is whether the Algerian leadership of the Polisario will use the occasion of Abdelaziz’s death to alter their dysfunctional approach to facilitating a “mutually acceptable political solution” to the Western Sahara issue; or simply continue their tiresome, shop worn efforts to sustain the status quo in the perceived interest of its perpetual utility in their ongoing Morocco bashing campaign.

I hate being the bearer of bad tidings, but don’t get your hopes up. Algeria shows no sign of any change of heart or vision about Western Sahara, better relations with Morocco, a better future for the Maghreb, or much of anything else for that matter. Algeria seems mired in the vortex of some kind of self consuming and inescapable time warp from the 1960s. Its geriatric leadership is itself being consumed in some kind of internecine power struggle over who will replace the ailing and aged Bouteflicka at the helm of Algeria’s continuing misery. Sorry, but there is no change you can believe in on the horizon here. Indeed, there is neither horizon nor change in view at all.

So what next on Western Sahara?

It is time to look past the United Nations and the Security Council and break the logjam in this Cold War antiquity of a problem. Those two have failed. I have another candidate for the job.  The Obama Administration.

Yes, yes, I know they are on their way out the door. But, believe it or not, there are a few things they could do right now to set in motion a process that would very substantially enhance the prospect that the next US Administration might actually be able to resolve this problem for good. Will they do it? I don’t know, but here are a few things they could do that would help enormously.

In the first instance, it would be seriously useful if the Administration would get serious about US policy on Western Sahara. Yes, we do actually have one. It has been the same once since 1999. Our policy is to support a compromise political solution to the Sahara based on a sovereignty/autonomy formula. In 1999, we decided not only that this was the best way forward on this issue; it was in fact, in the collective judgment of the US Government, the only way forward on this issue. That decision was later ratified on several occasions by the succeeding Bush Administrations and then by the Obama Administration as well.  It is our policy and we should start owning it.

In the first act of ownership, the Obama Administration should just make clear that when it says that Morocco’s autonomy initiative is “serious, credible and realistic” what it means to convey is that this kind of solution is the only reasonable way to resolve this issue, and the parties should accept that fact and commit themselves to negotiate some variety of this formula satisfactory to everyone involved. There should be no room for ambiguity in our statement here. Everyone should be left with no doubt. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once tried to make that clear before her underlings promptly muddied it up the very next day with their own less authoritative “clarification statements.”

Morocco has already started down this path on its own. Its new plan, already in motion, to devolve power to locally elected officials and commit serious new resources to improving the viability of the Saharan economy and the well-being of its population deserves not only a loud and clear public endorsement from Washington, but also merits a meaningful commitment of US assistance to help the Moroccans accomplish what we have been encouraging them to do in the region for over a decade. In other words, stop preaching and stop slow rolling it. Roll up your sleeves, pull out your wallet and pony up. They are doing the right thing and they deserve our help.

Neither of these two measures is inconsistent with US policy. Indeed, both are wholly in keeping with it, and both are relatively easy to accomplish. But what is important about them is that both will make it clear where we stand on this issue and remove the fiction that some other non-viable alternative is still possible and might win a US blessing. This helps break the logjam. This is the beginning of a solution. Frankly, there is no other way to do this. Waiting on the UN or the Security Council or an epiphany in Algiers is an endorsement of the status quo. Doing nothing or doing less signals to both a steadfast ally and a quixotic sometime “pretend partner” that we don’t mean what we say.  There is enough of that perception going around already.


I really enjoy ready your articles Bob!

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