Western Sahara: Some Advice for President Biden – Robert M. Holley

Vice President Biden meets with His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco November 19, 2014 in Fez to discuss a number of issues. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Robert M. Holley
October 9, 2020

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Dear Mr. President,

Western Sahara will not be among the most pressing issues facing your foreign policy team early in your Administration, nor should it. There is some heavy lifting to do on Europe, NATO, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. But you know that already. Eventually however, this nettlesome question of Western Sahara will pop up on the White House radar, it always does.  Hopefully, that will happen before it presents itself in another of its usually irksome crisis modes.

I would like to offer you some early advice about this question that may not appear in whatever briefing materials you receive in your transition papers from the State Department.

There are ways to resolve this issue, but none of them are risk free and those that are viable would require some measure of sustained periodic attention from your diplomatic team leaders who are going to be busy tending other priorities. If you decide eventually that this issue needs to be brought to a resolution, I hope your team will consider the outline of how that might be possible that I have described in my last several articles on this subject in this space.  But, that is not what I want to advise you to do now.

This is likely not a problem that needs to be solved now so much as one that needs to be competently managed.

First, my advice is to forget the approach that the Trump Administration has been trying.  This issue is not part of the larger question of peace in the Middle East and it will not be resolved by any transactional deal involving Moroccan recognition of Israel. This is a Maghreb regional development and security issue.

My long association in working this problem, both as a US diplomat and as a once FARA registered agent for Morocco, has persuaded me that Morocco would be willing to settle this issue based on the deal it struck with the Clinton Administration 20 years ago. However, unless the US is willing to put the full weight of its diplomacy behind that deal (something that never happened, even after we finally persuaded them to accept it), Morocco is content to simply manage the status quo. They believe (rightly or wrongly) that as long as they can prevent any of the major world powers, notably the US, from doing them irreparable harm on the question, time is on their side and the status quo works in their favor.

President Obama’s senior national security team at State and the NSC held conflicting views on how best to deal with this. As a consequence, at several points during those years, especially after the departure of Secretary Clinton, the close bilateral relationship with Morocco suffered serious harm which has yet to be repaired.  Your team should endeavor not to repeat those mistakes.  I am sure the Moroccans will be worried about that. There was a point just prior to the last White House meeting between President Obama and King Mohammed VI in November 2013 when I was seriously concerned that our relationship with Morocco was going to crash and burn over this issue because of the differences within the Administration.  That catastrophe was only narrowly avoided at the last minute.

The last bit of advice I gave to some of the senior leadership of the Middle East Bureau at State after that crisis was to avoid any repetition by following the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.”  It has always been the consensus default position among most career officers at State (again, rightly or wrongly) to simply manage a sustainable status quo on Western Sahara rather than run the risk of unsettling the regional balance between Morocco and Algeria by trying to resolve the issue. That consensus was first broken 20 years ago during the Clinton Presidency when we negotiated a deal with Morocco to resolve the issue. However, the status quo eventually reasserted itself as we neglected to follow through on the deal we originated. This de facto consensus was again broken when strongly held views between senior political leaders at State and the NSC collided just before the President’s meeting with the King in an attempt to undermine the stated US policy preference favoring a negotiated autonomy for the Sahara.

When the perceived risks of any action outweigh the potential rewards, kicking the can down the road is a legitimate option.  The problem is managing that option.  Short of a strategic decision to fix the problem, this is the core issue in Western Sahara.

Morocco and Algeria are engaged in a debilitating international public relations battle on this issue in their respective efforts to gain some decisive advantage for their preferred options among key players in the international community, especially in Washington.  What are their preferences?

Morocco’s declared preference is to negotiate autonomy for the region under Moroccan sovereignty.  This was the US policy choice made during the second Clinton Administration that we eventually persuaded Morocco to accept.  Failing that, Morocco is content to settle for the status quo.

Algeria’s stated preference is to hold a referendum on independence for the region with a prospective electorate that was hotly contested until the US pulled the plug on this winner-take-all approach, originally sanctioned by the United Nations, after eight fruitless years of attempts to resolve the issues around who should be allowed to vote.  Since the shift in the US position, theoretically agreed in the Security Council, Algeria’s principal objective has been to prevent any solution that might favor Morocco.

Both Morocco and Algeria have reason to prefer the status quo over any solution that does not achieve their original objective.  Morocco will continue to try and limit damage that Algeria will continue to try to inflict. So long as neither gains an upper hand in this to and fro, neither is seriously harmed and the game continues.  If we wish to manage this issue without bringing it to any solution, our objective should be to ensure that neither side gains an upper hand.  Neither seems willing to take steps that would provoke decisive interference from outside powers, so this balancing act seems sustainable so long as we avoid serious missteps like those that happened during the later Obama years.

The working consensus in the Security Council has favored a negotiated political solution since Morocco, at the urging of the United States, introduced its autonomy initiative in 2007, but that consensus is more mirage than reality. It holds largely because none of the Council’s permanent members have been willing to take any decisive action to break the stalemate and force negotiations on a compromise political solution.  In fact, the Security Council is also satisfied with the status quo, despite periodic rhetorical exhortations to the contrary.  This stalemate in the Security Council also argues in favor of a status quo policy.

The question is whether the status quo is sustainable.

The original ill advised and poorly conceived UN effort to conduct a winner take all referendum to decide the future of the region lasted roughly ten years after the end of active hostilities in 1991. Managing that effort nearly wrecked once close and friendly US relations with Morocco and led to the shift in Washington’s choice to favor a negotiated political compromise based on autonomy for the region under Moroccan sovereignty.

The current effort to manage a consensus process that ostensibly favors a negotiated compromise political solution has lasted for the better part of the last two decades without actually moving the problem any closer to a genuine solution. The resulting, sometimes shaky, stalemate is the current state of play.

Can this be sustained?  Should it be sustained? Is this the best that can be achieved without a firm commitment to taking the risks involved in pushing more firmly for a political solution? The short answer is “probably.”

I do not believe this is the best policy approach for solving this problem. Personally, I think a solution is possible and the risks of getting there are manageable. That said, I also recognize that the effort it would require may be more than your foreign policy team is willing to take on, given the higher priority items on the agenda that are in need of urgent attention after the mess that has been made these last four years.

That said, my advice to you is that we should endeavor to make sure that neither Morocco nor Algeria gains any decisive advantage in their respective efforts to strategically tilt the issue in their favor unless or until we decide that the time has come to get serious about resolving this issue on the basis of the sound policy choice we made 20 years ago.

My last bit of counsel to you would be to seek the advice of Secretary Clinton before you decide how best to manage this issue going forward for now, or in the future.  She knows more of the relevant substantive detail and history of our policy management on Western Sahara better than most senior political leaders in the country.


Robert M. Holley

United States Foreign Service (retired)

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