Near the very end of President Trump’s administration, the United States recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. That move elicited loud protests, most notably from James Baker, John Bolton, and Senator James Inhofe (R., Okla.). For reasons that are not persuasive, all three have long opposed Morocco’s territorial claims and have favored a process likely to weaken the kingdom, an important U.S. ally in a dangerous region. Moreover, their proposals might hand the territory over to the Polisario, a Cold War remnant organization that cannot reasonably be expected to play Morocco’s role in the struggle against terrorism and extremism.
The announcement by the White House states that
the United States affirms, as stated by previous Administrations, its support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Therefore, as of today, the United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory and reaffirms its support for Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution. We urge the parties to engage in discussions without delay, using Morocco’s autonomy plan as the only framework to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution.
Note the ingredients: (1) Previous administrations have supported the formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty; (2) it is the only realistic formula; (3) negotiations should begin.
Left unstated is the additional factor that I mentioned above: Deliberately destabilizing Morocco would be a senseless policy for the United States.
The objections by former secretary of state Baker and former national-security adviser Bolton are essentially that the Trump administration’s decision overturned decades of U.S. policy and international law. Mr. Baker, who also served as the U.N. special envoy for the Western Sahara, called it “an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy that the United States has espoused and respected for many years” and said it was “a major and unfortunate change in long-standing U.S. policy under both Democrat and Republican administrations.” That policy, he said, “has always taken a more or less neutral stance in support of the efforts by the United Nations to determine the future of that territory and its people, in a way that supports the principle of self-determination.”
Mr. Bolton’s view was sharply expressed in an essay for Foreign Policy: “Trump’s decision to throw the Sahrawi people under the bus ditches three decades of U.S. support for their self-determination via a referendum of the Sahrawi people on the territory’s future status.”
Senator Inhofe said that since 1966, “The international community has had one clear, defined policy: Western Sahara deserves a referendum of self-determination to determine its own future. The United States has supported this policy for decades and has worked to accomplish a referendum of self-determination. Until today, this Administration had continued our long history, one that has remained consistent across administrations.”
But these claims are actually wrong.
When Baker handled this issue for the United Nations in the 1990s, he developed a proposal then known as the “Baker Plan.” A first draft, in 2000, called for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty and was rejected by the Polisario and Algeria. A second plan was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in 2003, and it called for five years of local self-rule followed by a referendum on independence. Morocco rejected the plan precisely because it presented the independence option. Soon thereafter, Baker resigned the U.N. position.
In this period, the first term of President George W. Bush, I was senior director for the Near East and North Africa at the National Security Council. Baker visited with National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about the Western Sahara, and I believe it was in good part the Bush administration’s refusal to support the Baker Plan that led to Baker’s resignation.
Why did we reject it? We understood three critical things. The first and most important was that it was simply impossible for the king of Morocco to countenance independence for the Western Sahara without destabilizing his own rule — with potentially huge consequences for North Africa and U.S. interests. Moroccans are riven by many disputes in their internal politics, but they are united on the issue of the Western Sahara. The “Green March” of 1975 organized by the king’s father, Hassan II, in which 350,000 Moroccans entered the Western Sahara, was a turning point for the government of Morocco. Indeed, neither Hassan nor the current ruler King Mohammed VI has since then ever contemplated letting the region break off from Morocco. To do so would undermine public support for the monarchy and the government, and weaken both.
I do recall, I hope accurately, a comment by Baker to the effect that his plan called for a five-year delay in holding the independence referendum, and that during that period Morocco would likely be able to incentivize more Moroccans to move into the Western Sahara and become eligible to vote there. If the government were energetic and smart about this, surely Morocco could win the independence referendum. But that comment showed exactly the problem with the Baker Plan: It would have forced Morocco to acknowledge and accept the legitimacy and the possibility of losing part of its territory, and seeing it become a Polisario state. Doing that was precisely what was dangerous for the government and the monarchy, whatever predictions might be made about referendum results.
The second thing we in the Bush administration understood was wrong with the Baker Plan was that it might have led to the creation of a Polisario state in the Western Sahara. There are many reasons this was and still is a bad idea. For one thing, the Polisario has for decades relied on the hosting and financial, diplomatic, and military support of Algeria. Morocco and Algeria remain rivals; relations are “tense” and “poor”; Algeria recently denounced Morocco’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel; and the land border between them has been closed since 1994. Independence for the Western Sahara would mean that Morocco’s land borders consist of Algeria and what would likely be an Algerian dependency, the new Polisario state. That would hardly be conducive to Moroccan security, prosperity, and stability. It could mean that Morocco had no open land border at all, and fighting late in 2020 was occasioned by Polisario actions to block the land border between Morocco and Mauritania.
Morocco and the United States have a long and deep relationship, and Morocco is a major non-NATO ally. As the State Department phrases it:
Morocco and the United States share common concerns and consult closely on security, political, and economic issues and sustainable development. The United States designated Morocco a Major Non-NATO Ally in 2004, and the U.S. and Moroccan militaries hold joint exercises and training. Morocco is a strong partner in counterterrorism efforts and works closely with U.S. law enforcement to safeguard both countries’ national security interests. The U.S. and Morocco coordinate their efforts to promote regional stability and security, including through the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The Congressional Research Service summarizes that “successive U.S. Administrations have viewed Morocco as an important regional partner on security, trade, and development. . . . U.S.-Morocco security cooperation is robust.” It is inconceivable to think of this kind of security relationship existing with a Polisario state. How, therefore, would pursuing this new dynamic be in the interest of the United States?
Finally, the third thing we understood was that never in history had the Western Sahara been an independent state. There was and is no pressing historical, political, or legal reason to make it one. (For a discussion of the legal aspects, see the discussion by Antonin Scalia Law School professor Eugene Kontorovich.) If the United States must support an independence referendum for the Western Sahara, why not for Scotland and Catalonia? Why not Quebec and Wales?
With these and other considerations in mind, the United States rightly rejected the Baker Plan. But we also encouraged the Moroccan government to develop a credible autonomy plan for the Western Sahara, and it did so. In 2007, the United States publicly called the Moroccan plan “a serious and credible proposal to provide real autonomy for the Western Sahara.” Nor was the United States alone: Also in 2007, “The French foreign ministry said the plan offered a constructive step toward negotiations and the possibility of ‘a political solution endorsed by all the parties within the framework of the United Nations.’”
That was during the George W. Bush administration, but in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the press after meeting with Morocco’s foreign minister that “our policy has not changed, and I thank you for asking the question because I think it’s important for me to reaffirm here . . . that there has been no change in policy.” Both countries reaffirmed these views again on October 30, 2020 at the United Nations (while also criticizing the Polisario blocking actions at the Mauritania border).
Previous U.S. support for the Moroccan autonomy plan did not go all the way to the step the United States took in December 2020, finally recognizing Moroccan sovereignty. But that step was surely not the complete and “astounding” break with past U.S. positions that Baker called it. It was instead a logical progression from what had for more than a decade, under administrations of both parties, been the U.S. position: that autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty was the best realistic option.
The U.N. special envoy for the region in 2005–2008, the late Peter Van Walsum, spelled out why in 2007:
As the Council had made it clear from the outset that it could only contemplate a consensual solution to the question of Western Sahara and, more specifically, had not reacted in 2004 when Morocco decided that it could not consent to any referendum in which independence was an option, I had concluded that there was no pressure on Morocco to abandon its claim of sovereignty over the Territory and, therefore, that an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition. . . . . My conclusion [was] that an independent Western Sahara is not an attainable goal.
Van Walsum was right. It is worth noting how closely the White House statement from December 2020, quoted above, follows his logic: “The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution.”
There are, at bottom, two possible paths forward for the region: the endless continuation of conflict, and a negotiation aimed at securing real autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. By recognizing Moroccan sovereignty, the United States has added pressure for a serious autonomy negotiation that might bring the conflict to an end. No other path will get us there.