Western Sahara: “Frustration?”

National Security Advisor John Bolton recently delivered an address to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, outlining the Trump Administration’s policies, concerns, and ambitions for Africa.  In doing so, he expressed his “frustration” that the Western Sahara issue remains unresolved and his “preference” that the Parties to the dispute over the future of the territory find a way to settle on a solution among themselves. He added, not for the first time, that the US would not continue to support UN peacekeeping missions that failed to produce any demonstrable progress.

Bolton’s frustration is, of course, widely shared – especially in the Western Sahara. However, the likelihood that the Parties (Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario Front, and Mauritania) are ever going to settle on a common understanding of how best to resolve the issue, if left to their own devices, flies in the face of four decades of failure. Neither 15 years of war nor nearly three subsequent decades of international diplomacy has produced the least progress towards a settlement.

Hard to believe that Mr. Bolton harbors any real hope that Morocco, Algeria, and the Polisario are suddenly going to experience some epiphany on the road to the next round of talks in Geneva early next year. Equally difficult to believe that the new Personal Envoy, former German President Hans Kohler, will be any more persuasive than his many predecessors unless some higher power decides to intervene to force matters forward.

Mr. Bolton’s implied threat of a future lack of US support for the UN peacekeeping operation for Western Sahara, MINURSO, is unlikely to move any of the Parties off their well established and mutually exclusive positions.  In the first instance, that approach has been tried and failed before.  The US has previously cut its funding for MINURSO, but the mission continued without US monies because other members of the Security Council were unwilling to see the effort discontinued. Further, even if MINURSO were to be eliminated, that in itself would not relieve the Security Council of its obligations, unless it is prepared to take the further extraordinary step of eliminating the issue from its continuing agenda. That is, to declare that the Council would no longer remain “seized” of the matter — a most unlikely decision.

In an article in this space last week, my colleague Ed Gabriel suggested that it was time for the US and the UN to stop the double talk on Western Sahara. He usefully suggested that this is an opportunity for the US to move this issue forward in conjunction with other actions to support Morocco’s offer of a reasonable political solution. He also endorsed the idea I proposed in my last article on this issue that it is time for Mr. Kohler to put something of his own on the table to try and break the stalemate among the Parties.

My counsel to Kohler is that he have a serious discussion with Bolton about crafting a new proposal that the US can support in the Security Council, consistent with long standing US declaratory policy on this dispute…one based on compromise and realism and that avoids the extremes of any winner-take-all outcome.  Maybe Bolton is “frustrated” enough to persuade his US and UN colleagues that the Security Council needs to do more than simply wring its hands and wait for the recalcitrant Parties to act on their own.