Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
May 23, 2019
Following the unexpected resignation of Horst Köhler as the UNSG’s Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara on May 22, chances to advance the Western Sahara dossier in the coming year seem seriously diminished. However, other factors may keep the Americans pushing the parties forward.
John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, has been insistent that the UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, either make progress or its funding will be cut off. Amy Tachco, the political coordinator for the United States mission to the UN stated a year ago, “MINURSO is a peacekeeping mission that should have finished its job a long time ago… we as a Security Council have allowed Western Sahara to lapse into a textbook example of a frozen conflict. And MINURSO is a textbook example of a peacekeeping mission that no longer serves a political purpose.”
The State Department however seems to understand that the region can be volatile without a peacekeeping force in the Sahara. Renewed hostilities could lead to armed conflict through a misstep by the Algerians or Polisario without this UN buffer zone, unlikely as it may seem today.
In the past, American progress to advance the Sahara issue relied significantly on senior Administration officials’ interest and an understanding of the existential nature of the conflict to Morocco. Under President Clinton, Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk understood the issue as an impediment to US-Morocco interests and in 1999 took the lead to advance a new compromise political policy of granting autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the people of the Sahara region.
During the George W. Bush administration, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams pushed the Moroccans to advance their own initiative which he then labeled as credible and serious. Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State under President Obama, said she was clear in supporting Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara and firmly stated that the policy remained the same as under the Clinton and Bush administrations, calling the Morocco proposal not only credible and serious, but also realistic.
When Hillary Clinton left office, Moroccan-American relations entered a more troubled period when then NSC Adviser Susan Rice attempted to dilute the long-standing US policy of supporting Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara and autonomy for the citizens by using human rights issues to undermine the legitimacy of Morocco’s presence in the territory. This broke the warm and largely cooperative relationship between Morocco and the United States in our mutual effort to resolve this issue with a realistic political compromise. I am not sure that this relationship has yet fully recovered from that episode.
The State Department now has as its Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale, a professional diplomat with a deep understanding of policy across the region, from Morocco to the Gulf and beyond. As a career Ambassador with significant experience in the region, Under Secretary Hale has shown particular interest in the affairs of Morocco and in solving the Western Sahara problem. Further, I believe that he seems predisposed to want to keep MINURSO in place, as he sees it as vital and cost-effective to the stability of North Africa. But he also knows that NSC Adviser Bolton will not tolerate spending more dollars on this mission without some demonstrable progress in resolving the underlying political dispute.
There is no doubt that with the resignation of Köhler, the UN process faces a transition and a slowing of the process before a new UN Personal Envoy is announced. His resignation is not the best timing, given the high level interest at the State Department. After more than a year at the helm, Under Secretary Hale has gained the trust of the Moroccans, an essential ingredient if they want to encourage the Moroccans on a path forward. He is also as trusted by Algeria and the Polisario as a fair and balanced diplomat. What then can the US do to keep the momentum moving?
Perhaps it’s time for State to work with its allies in the UN Security Council to offer the outlines of a new proposal, one still based on the only viable political compromise available, a trade-off between sovereignty and autonomy. Working quietly with key members of the UN Security Council on a new initiative could be tabled in the Security Council with appropriate incentives offered to both parties to continue negotiations.
This was the approach used by the United States in 1999 under the leadership of President Bill Clinton. The Americans presented to the Moroccans a secret proposal to grant an internationally acceptable form of autonomy for the people of the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, a compromise between the Polisario proposal for total independence and the Moroccan demand for total integration.
In order to persuade the Moroccans, the Americans promised in writing to the Moroccans that they would not support any negotiated solution that failed to protect Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The Americans could restate this commitment privately as part of any new initiative.
In order to entice the Polisario, the Americans could guarantee that they would be assured a confirmatory referendum by the people of the Sahara for any negotiated solution they agree to, and that any autonomy would be based on common international standards. Both Parties should be willing to enter serious negotiations without preconditions, so they would not feel as though they were forced to accept preconditions or redlines of the other before negotiations began.
The advantage here is that a new initiative would be seen as originating not with the current Moroccan initiative, but rather from a consensus position of the international community. This kind of face saving maneuver for all of the Parties could be the key to making serious progress, especially if it truly emerged from a consensus among the key players on the Security Council, or separately as a US proposal which had the clear support of many in the international community.
The Moroccans should not pass up this opportunity with a senior US official who seems genuinely interested in solving the Western Sahara conflict, which has gone on for too long, and has caused too much hardship for so many. The Moroccans should therefore take the lead in pushing for such a process to begin.The Americans will be further encouraged by the Moroccan lead and may see it as a valuable window of opportunity. There is nothing to lose for the Moroccans by at least testing the approach with the Americans. It’s better than the alternative of another stalemate.