Although Morocco has been a strategic ally of the United States since the Cold War, the dispute over the Western Sahara does not trouble U.S. decision makers as much as other international conflicts do. Yet Morocco still views the United States as the most important external player in the controversy over the Western Sahara. The U.S. approach to the Western Sahara dispute for the past thirty years offers many insights into U.S. policy toward Morocco.
The Western Sahara dispute pits Morocco, which had annexed the former Spanish-controlled territory, against the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the territory with the backing of Algeria. The United States has taken multiple approaches to the dispute. Early on, it played a key role diplomatically in pressing Spain to meet Rabat’s demands and accept the Madrid Treaty whereby Spain ceded the Sahara to Morocco in 1975. Since 1977 it has adopted a neutral stance toward the issue.
The U.S. approach to the Western Sahara dispute for the past thirty years offers many insights into U.S. policy toward Morocco.
The beginning of President Carter’s term saw a crisis in relations between the two countries that came to a head in 1978, when the U.S. froze arms sales to Morocco. The pretext was that Morocco had broken the terms of a bilateral military agreement signed in 1960 prohibiting the use of U.S. weapons outside internationally recognized borders. Tension eased the following year when President Carter approved the resumption of arms sales to Morocco under pressure from some members of Congress who saw Morocco as a strategic Cold War ally.
Relations recovered under the Reagan administration, which viewed the conflict in the Western Sahara as part of the Cold War, branding the Polisario Front a Soviet ally. However, U.S. policy took the form of “positive neutrality,” which meant supporting Morocco militarily but not politically. Moreover, the United States stopped short of backing Morocco’s call for a referendum in the mid-1980s, and did not push Morocco to develop a political approach to the conflict. The United States also did not defend Morocco’s case in international arenas.
At the end of the Cold War, Morocco lost its strategic significance to U.S. policy as old alliances lost importance.
At the end of the Cold War, Morocco lost its strategic significance to U.S. policy as old alliances lost importance. This change also decreased American interest in the Western Sahara issue. However, what characterized George H. Bush’s presidency was the fact that it maintained a neutral stance and publicly called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
In the early 1990s, Morocco supported the coalition forces in the first Gulf War and expressed readiness to mediate between Israel and the Arabs to help the U.S.–initiated peace process. All these policies can be seen as efforts to sway Washington’s position with regard to the Western Sahara dispute. However, these attempts met with little success as President Bush reiterated to the late King Hassan of Morocco in 1991 that the Western Sahara dispute was a matter for the United Nations to address. By taking this position, the United States on the one hand tried to improve its image and reaffirm its respect for international legitimacy. On the other hand, this neutral position reflected its policy goals in the Maghreb region in the 1990s —aiming to keep Morocco as a geostrategic ally without harming its economic interests in Algeria.
During most of Clinton’s two terms, there was little change in the U.S. policy of neutrality that did not recognize Western Sahara as a Moroccan territory. However, toward the end of Clinton’s second term, a slight change occurred when Washington realized that diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute might fail and thus threaten to destabilize the region with renewed violence. Such instability could affect southern Europe negatively and jeopardize U.S. interests.
Despite many instances of cooperation between Morocco and the United States during George W. Bush’s presidency, the United States maintained its neutral stance on the Western Sahara, although it intervened in other issues of interest to Rabat, such as mediating the dispute with Spain over Leila Island.
The year 2003 saw a sudden shift in policy when the United States released a statement supporting the Baker plan, which offered two alternative solutions: either granting the Saharan provinces autonomy within a federal kingdom of Morocco with unspecified borders, or accepting the partition of the territory.
The year 2003 saw a sudden shift in policy when the United States released a statement supporting the Baker plan, which offered two alternative solutions: either granting the Saharan provinces autonomy within a federal kingdom of Morocco with unspecified borders, or accepting the partition of the territory. However, this did not translate to a firm position as President Bush reiterated that any settlement would not be imposed on Rabat, acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue to Morocco’s internal politics. It was a stand that revealed the centrality of the war on terror in the Bush administration’s strategies, as it viewed the conflict in the Sahara as intertwined with Morocco’s cooperation in Washington’s antiterrorism campaign.
Aware of this, Morocco adopted a rhetoric that linked the threat posed by the ongoing Western Sahara issue to the threat of terrorist groups spreading in North Africa. However, the linking of the two issues had limited effect because both sides of the conflict, Morocco and Algeria, were involved in the U.S. war on terror. Indeed, at times they were even forced by Washington to cooperate and exchange intelligence information on terrorism, particularly after the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
One way to examine the importance of the Western Sahara dispute for the United States is to compare the positions taken by Congress and the White House.
One way to examine the importance of the Western Sahara dispute for the United States is to compare the positions taken by Congress and the White House. Congress is divided. Some support Morocco and emphasize Rabat’s key role in the war on terror and the Middle East conflicts, the strength of the historic U.S.–Moroccan ties, and the democratic reforms in the kingdom; others support the Sahrawis’ rights to self-determination and criticize Morocco’s record on human rights and its exploitation of the territory’s natural resources, dismissing argument about the historic nature of the relations between the two countries as a thing of the past. In recent years, the divide between the two camps has become more pronounced.
As for the White House, the Bush administration changed its stance repeatedly. First, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton threatened to force the withdrawal of the UN mission from the Western Sahara. Later, the Bush administration went to another extreme, threatening to elevate the Western Sahara dispute from a Chapter VI to a Chapter VII issue. Such a change would have forced the sides of the conflict to comply with UN resolutions or face the consequences. Eventually, the administration returned to a more neutral policy. The fluctuations in the U.S. position reveal Washington’s interest in maintaining room for maneuver between its two strategic allies, Morocco and Algeria. This policy left both Algeria and Morocco feeling dissatisfied, but not threatened. As a Security Council member, the United States often expresses its position on the dispute through its acts in the UN. That is, through pressing the UN to maintain an indefinite involvement in the region by playing the role of the “tourist policeman.”
The neutral role that the United States insists on maintaining also shows the different nature of its alliances with either side of the conflict. Morocco is an old ally that goes back to the Cold War and is a geostrategic gateway to southern Europe and Africa. It also provides the United States with political access to the Arab World, and Washington often uses Morocco as an “experimental field” in which it tests reforms and democratic efforts designed for the region. As for Algeria, the United States has taken an economic interest in the country following the end of the Cold War. The United States sees Algeria as a potential investment market and the scene of a future economic contest with China, a remnant of the Cold War rivalry.
Early indications of the direction of Obama’s administration suggest that the Western Sahara dispute will be discussed in terms of tightly observed international legitimacy.
The Western Saharan dispute is one of the most neglected international conflicts. The region has not developed enough to turn into an area where the United States and Europe (particularly France and Spain which display a more profound understanding of the conflict) compete for influence. Early indications of the direction of Obama’s administration suggest that the Western Sahara dispute will be discussed in terms of tightly observed international legitimacy. This is particularly relevant as the region is beginning to relive the Cold War spirit following the severance of ties between Morocco and Venezuela over the Western Sahara dispute, and Iran hinting that it might begin to support the Polisario Front after a recent diplomatic standoff with Morocco.
Abdel-Rahim Al-Manar Slimi is professor of political sciences at the Mohammed V University in Morocco.