What Should the United States Do in Western Sahara?


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“A recent opinion piece by five former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco (‘A Seismic Shift in U.S. North African Policy’, Middle East Times, 6 October 2008) strongly supported a Moroccan proposal to offer the disputed territory of Western Sahara limited autonomy.

Morocco invaded the territory in 1975 against the wishes of the native Sahrawi population, who have been fighting for independence since 1973, when Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. In 1991, the UN Security Council sent a mission to Western Sahara to organize a referendum on independence, yet Morocco has refused to allow such a vote. Instead Morocco has ‘offered’ Western Sahara autonomy, despite the fact that no country in the world has recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Colorado-sized territory…..”

Author: Jacob Mundy, former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and a PhD candidate in Middle East politics, University of Exeter
Published in: Oregon Herald on Internet
Date: October 10, 2008

For the full article:
What Should the United States Do in Western Sahara?
(812 words)
by Jacob Mundy

A recent opinion piece by five former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco (‘A Seismic Shift in U.S. North African Policy’, Middle East Times, 6 October 2008) strongly supported a Moroccan proposal to offer the disputed territory of Western Sahara limited autonomy.

Morocco invaded the territory in 1975 against the wishes of the native Sahrawi population, who have been fighting for independence since 1973, when Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. In 1991, the UN Security Council sent a mission to Western Sahara to organize a referendum on independence, yet Morocco has refused to allow such a vote. Instead Morocco has ‘offered’ Western Sahara autonomy, despite the fact that no country in the world has recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Colorado-sized territory.

The former Ambassador’s pro-Morocco argument is ostensibly based upon ‘realism’ and what is in the U.S. interest. However, their self-interest certainly comes into play. In recent years, Morocco has spent millions of dollars lobbying in Washington to cover up its illegal occupation and dismal human rights record in Western Sahara — one of the ‘worst of the worst’ according to Freedom House.

Autonomy is not the most realistic solution for Western Sahara because it will require an expensive international peacekeeping force to guarantee the safety of the population and mutual implementation of the agreement. Considering the lack of resources to stop genocide in Darfur, is there really enough international will for an even more robust intervention into Western Sahara?

This, however, assumes Morocco and the Western Saharan independence movement can reach an agreement in the first place. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, at least there is the fundamental agreement on a two-state solution. In Western Sahara, there is no fundamental agreement.

The Bush administration has recently claimed that an independent Western Sahara is not in the U.S. interest because it would be weak. Western Sahara is a vast desert territory, but it will have a significant resource base from which to build an economy: some of the world’s highest grade phosphate deposits, the richest fishing grounds in Africa and various other untapped resources (e.g., hydrocarbons). In terms of government, the Western Saharan independence movement has embraced multi-party democracy and free market capitalism.

The question of viability is more than a function of per capita GDP. There are plenty of densely populated countries that are unstable and poor, just as there are very wealthy nations with small populations.

Viability depends largely on the policies of the international community and neighboring states. The case of Chad is a prime example. Though it is a poor, landlocked country, competing interests (e.g., French, Libyan and international oil companies) are a significant factor in that country’s problems. During the Cold War, Somalia — synonymous with ‘instability’ — was the site of some of the most intense U.S.-Soviet rivalry. After being ignored for a decade in the wake of the 1993 ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident, Somalia is now a front in the war on terror, with regional rival Ethiopia playing a proxy role for the White House. Mauritania, Western Sahara’s southern neighbor, is also a sparsely populated Saharan country. In the past three years, Mauritania has suffered two coup d’états amidst increasing terrorist activity within and across its porous borders. Yet neighboring Morocco has supported the recent toppling of Mauritania’s first democratically elected president, just to bolster its strategic position in Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara independence movement is quite aware of the fact that it needs strong support from Washington. For that reason, they have developed bipartisan support in the U.S. congress. They also accepted a 2003 peace proposal designed by then UN envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. Morocco, knowing full well that Baker’s proposed referendum would lead to Western Sahara’s independence, refused to cooperate, forcing Baker to resign in 2004.

The problem for U.S. interests is Morocco’s instability not Western Sahara’s viability. The legitimacy of the authoritarian monarchy in Morocco is partially based upon its conquest of Western Sahara. Should Western Sahara achieve independence, France and the United States have long worried that the monarchy will fall. Yet Western Saharan nationalists will not accept direct Moroccan rule and give up their internationally recognized rights because its supposedly not in the U.S. interest.

The last thing Western Sahara needs is pro-Moroccan lobbying disguised as a compassionate call for peace. Cheerleading from former U.S. officials who are either in the pay of the Moroccan monarchy (e.g., the Moroccan-American Center for Policy) or to have business interests in Morocco will only exacerbate the conflict by alienating Western Saharan nationalists from an already fragile peace process. Calling on the UN to impose a solution against the obvious wishes of the Western Saharans and against international law reveals the moral bankruptcy of Morocco’s Washington proxies.

If they were truly interested in peace, they would support the long-held U.S. position in support of self-determination for Western Sahara.

Jacob Mundy (jam214@ex.ac.uk) is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and a PhD candidate in Middle East politics, University of Exeter.