n a hearing on US-Morocco relations held Wednesday in Rayburn House Office Building, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle praised Morocco as a "stable and stalwart US ally in a complicated part of the world," and called for a negotiated solution to the forty-year-old Western Sahara conflict based on a formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.
"The US and Morocco have had a long and strategic relationships for so very long," said Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in opening statements at the event, which was co-sponsored by Subcommittee Ranking Member Ted Deutch (R-FL). "Morocco has been one of the few bright spots… of stability, of reform, of progress in North Africa, and we want to see that continue."
Referring to the imminent renewal of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in the Sahara known as MINURSO, the Chairman noted, "That's why it is so vital that the United States reaffirm our position in support of Morocco and work with our ally to draft a clean resolution that will bring this crisis to a close." The crisis she was referring to dates back to last month when, as she explained at the hearing, "[United Nations] Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made some outrageous comments misrepresenting Morocco's administration of the Western Sahara. The Secretary General's indiscrete comments called into question the neutrality of the United Nations and its ability to facilitate what we want -- a negotiated solution."
Other members of Congress in attendance included Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), and Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ). A panel of experts provided testimony in support of Moroccan sovereignty over the region.
"Polisario intransigence, coupled with historical North African rivalry embedded in Algeria's view of the Western Sahara, represent the two defining impediments to a solution," said former US Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, reflecting on his experience in Rabat under the first Clinton Administration. Remarking on the UN Secretary General's recent comments on the issue, Ambassador Ginsberg expressed his "deep disappointment with the unwarranted and unhelpful interference by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon," adding that Ban "has singularly undermined the critical role which the United Nations has heretofore played to preserve the peace."
"[Autonomy] under Moroccan sovereignty constitutes a just and viable solution, particularly at a time where the expansion of ISIS and Al Qaeda in North Africa should render independence the least justifiable option for American security," he went on.
Echoing the sentiment, former US Ambassador to Morocco Michael Ussery said, "For the US, the clear option going forward is one of common sense, supporting Morocco, our long-standing friend and an ally in the war on terror, and a nation of religious tolerance." He warned that an independent Western Sahara "is a path that can lead to more regional instability and terrorism and possibly the next Libya."
"I think it is important that we speak plainly and with common sense about the best outcome for the people and territory of Western Sahara and, frankly, what is in the national security interest of the United States," said former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff Director Lester Munson. "This outcome -- genuine local autonomy [under Moroccan sovereignty] for the people of Western Sahara -- is a reasonable compromise that accounts for most of the interests of all parties."
Speaking to the welfare of the people of the region, Nizar Baraka, President of Morocco's Economic, Social, and Environmental Council, explained how Morocco is doing everything it can to improve life for those living in the Western Sahara, namely through the country's regionalization plan, which "consists of a large transfer of authority to directly elected regional councils," as well as a number of infrastructure and economic development initiatives. "Through their elected representatives, the populations of the Moroccan Sahara choose to take full and entire responsibility in building a better future for their children without being hostage of the long-lasting UN process."
US policy on the Western Sahara dates back to 1999 and has continued under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations. In a Joint Statement issued on November 22, 2013 following a meeting between President Obama and King Mohammed VI, the US reiterated that Morocco's autonomy plan is "serious, realistic, and credible." The two leaders also affirmed "their shared commitment to the improvement of the lives of the people of the Western Sahara."
The policy -- and support for Morocco's autonomy plan -- has also been reiterated by bipartisan majorities of both the US House and Senate. In April 2009, 233 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to President Obama reaffirming their support for Morocco's autonomy proposal. The letter built on another letter from 2007 signed by 173 Members of the House reiterating Congressional support for the Moroccan plan, and a letter from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other former policy makers. In March 2010, 54 members of the United States Senate affirmed their support for Morocco's autonomy plan in a letter addressed to then‐Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to "make the resolution of the Western Sahara stalemate a U.S. foreign policy priority for North Africa." In its legislative report for the 2016 Appropriations Bill passed in December 2015, Congress re-affirmed its strong bipartisan support for a negotiated solution to the dispute over the region based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, and encouraged American private sector investment in Western Sahara.