A new President, a New Opportunity in the Western Sahara

Once again, this April, the United States will go through the annual ritual at the UN Security Council of renewing of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO). This is a yearly exercise to renew MINURSO’s mandate to oversee a dispute between the Algerian-backed Polisario Front and Morocco. How the US handles this issue has historically defined our bilateral relationship with Morocco until the following year.


There have been years when the renewal was relatively easy and bolstered the bilateral relationship.  There have also been many times when the relationship soured over the renewal. And every US Ambassador to Morocco during the past 25 years or more has had either an easy or difficult tenure depending on their statements and views on the issue.


In the early years of the reign of King Mohammed VI, 1999-2002, the US-Morocco relationship saw a renaissance, with a new strategic bilateral relationship that was anchored in an initiative by the United States under President Clinton to propose a new policy guaranteeing Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara, while granting generous autonomy to its inhabitants.


Unfortunately, that bilateral revitalization came to an abrupt end in the summer of 2003 when then UN personal envoy James Baker reversed his promise to support the agreed upon sovereignty/autonomy proposal and threatened to force Morocco with UN chapter VII sanctions (i.e. UN takes military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security) if it did not accept his proposal, which would have been destabilizing for Morocco.  This led to a meeting between President Bush and King Mohammed VI on September 2003, in which a crisis was averted when the President made it clear that such a position was not that of the United States.   By the time President Bush’s second term ended – and due to the designation of Morocco as a non-NATO ally and the signing one of the few privileged free trade agreements – the long-standing Morocco-US relationship was back on track, and the United Nations was referring to Morocco’s 2007 sovereignty/autonomy compromise proposal as “credible” and “serious”.


Relations remained strong during the first Obama Administration due to the forward leaning diplomacy of Secretary Clinton, who reiterated that the sovereignty/autonomy policy remained the official position of the US, and the Moroccan proposal was not only viewed as serious and credible but also “realistic.”


The relationship hit its lowest point during the renewal process of April 2013, when US-UN Ambassador Susan Rice attempted to include onerous and unsubstantiated human rights language without consulting with the Moroccans, a decision some analysts believe the relationship has yet to recover from. One needs only to look at Morocco’s new alliances to see how this may have affected our bilateral relationship, as it forges new strategic relationships with China and India, and is buying military equipment from Russia.


Morocco’s relationship with the US however is an historical and longstanding one and this may be the ideal time for President Trump to reach out to the Kingdom and give new breath to these existing ties. Some at the State Department may suggest that the US should simply kick the can down the road and have a clean renewal of MINURSO this April, without taking unnecessary – and in their view risky – actions by further supporting the Moroccan proposal.  And, let’s face it; we are preoccupied with addressing more volatile issues in the greater Middle East region, from Libya to Jerusalem to Iran.


However, let us remind ourselves that Morocco is and has been an unwavering partner in an unstable region.  It is unfortunate that, despite decades of effective bilateral cooperation on a host of issues, America has not placed a high priority on Morocco, a country with one of the strongest records in the Middle East on political and economic reforms, and on improving human rights and social change, as well as being a friend that is always supportive of our battle against terrorism and other multilateral interests.


This year, the UN Security Council vote on MINURSO should be seized as an opportunity for the US to reach out to the Moroccans and support their proposal for sovereignty with autonomy as the only viable compromise option.  If the US were to advocate such a position – which a vast majority of countries already believe – its relationship with Morocco will be greatly enhanced, and it will continue to hold close a country that is not only important to our many interests, but is one of the best models for democracy and stability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)