Why Can’t the US have a Consistent Voice on the Western Sahara?
Two events, separated by an ocean and it seems a universe, occurred recently that provided an opportunity for the US to enhance its foreign policy credibility. It is interesting to see how the State Department is attempting to reconcile its seemingly uncertain position on Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara with the growing international consensus that the autonomy is a potential solution for achieving self-determination for the region. It is all the more confusing majorities in both Houses of Congress and three consecutive administrations have called the autonomy proposal “serious, realistic, and credible.”
Strategic Dialogue Sets the Tone
The first event was the second US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue held April 4 and 5 in Morocco. Secretary Kerry led from the US side. It was a really remarkable visit. He jointly chaired the Strategic Dialogue with Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar; visited with leaders of Parliament and staff at the US Embassy; and presided over the swearing-in of the most recent group of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Morocco. It was a prolonged love fest, visibly demonstrating why the two allies hold each other in such high regard.
And statements words from both sides echoed the strong ties expressed by King Mohammed VI and President Obama during the King’s visit in November 2013. In his opening remarks, Secretary Kerry noted “We are here today to help shape a common future, and it’s a future defined by a shared prosperity and shared security that we can create together…and shared…values.” In speaking about security issues Kerry commented “The United States stands by and will stand by this relationship every step of the way. President Obama is deeply committed to that, and that commitment comes from…our people.”
Foreign Minister Mezouar was equally eloquent. In addressing the Western Sahara he said:
“The Moroccan initiative in its content reacts to the expectations of the people in the Sahara in the management of their own affairs, which guarantees dignity, freedom, and development.” He went on “The atmosphere of an understanding – of the environment of understanding based on common political and references of democracy and human rights makes us believe in our ability for a common partnership…that will be very important and decisive in determining the progress in this region and in Africa.”
The joint statement at the conclusion of the Strategic Dialogue was quite specific in defining the parameters of this partnership. Whether in reference to human rights and political reforms, civil society and immigration issues, or economic cooperation and cultural and educational cooperation, the tone was serious, constructive, and hopeful. On the regional level, the two parties pledged “to use our strategic partnership to advance shared priorities of a stable, democratic, and prosperous Maghreb, Africa, and Middle East.” Secretary Kerry “Reaffirmed our commitment to a peaceful, sustainable, mutually agreed-upon solution to the Western Sahara question…The United States has made clear that Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible, and that it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to runt their own affairs in peace and dignity. Furthermore, “The Secretary welcomed the recent actions and initiatives by Morocco to continue to protect and promote human rights in the territory.”
So What’s Up at State?
The second event occurred on April 9 when the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa asked representatives from the State Department and USAID to address “U.S. Policy Toward Morocco.”
After complimenting Morocco on its efforts in democratic and economic reforms, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, William Roebuck, addressed the Western Sahara issue using similar language to Secretary Kerry in Morocco supporting “the United Nations-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable, and mutually-acceptable solution to the Western Sahara question.”
In reference to the 2014 Appropriations law enabling Title III funding to be spent anywhere in Morocco, DAS Roebuck noted that spending US funds in the Western Sahara would somehow undermine the non-going negotiations, which have been dormant for years. There is clearly a disconnect between what some at the State Department promote as US interests and the position taken by the Bush, Clinton, and Obama Administrations and majorities of Congress that the autonomy plan is the only way forward.
In her prepared remarks, Alina Romanowski, Deputy Assistant Administrator at the Middle East USAID Bureau was equally narrowly focused on existing initiatives with no reference to the Appropriations mandate. This would be understandable if this was a debate 20+ years ago when the first UN mission was assigned on a referendum mission. US policy changed in 2006 in favor of a negotiated, mutually acceptable political solution. The only proposition that emerged from that step is the Morocco autonomy initiative referenced by Chair Ros-Lehtinen and other members of the Subcommittee. Yet, there are those at State who can overlook the humanitarian and capacity-building needs of the people of the Sahara and stay the 1991 course of inaction.
It’s past time to enable the people of the Western Sahara to build their capacity to enjoy the autonomy promised by Morocco to manage their affairs as promised within the regionalization proposed in Morocco’s 2011 Constitution. Morocco is a steadfast and willing partner in a region where that kind of ally is in short supply. If we are sincerely interested in the human, social, economic, and political development of the Sahara, autonomy supported by the US and the global community is the way forward; this will be the best antidote to insecurity in the region. This will give them the dignity the people in the Sahara deserve.