Opinion by James A. Baker III
Dec. 17, 2020
President Trump’s recent proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy that the United States has espoused and respected for many years. This rash move disguised as diplomacy will contribute to the existing deadlock in resolving the long-standing conflict between Morocco and the people of Western Sahara over the status of that territory. Further, it threatens to complicate our relations with Algeria, an important strategic partner, and has negative consequences on the overall situation in North Africa.
The Abraham Accords and efforts to widen them are, of course, laudable ways to promote peace in the Middle East by establishing formal relations between Israel and Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco, especially if they would help in addressing the Palestinian dimension. Peace between Israelis and Arabs is critical to stability in that region. And so, Trump deserves credit for seeking to rearrange the chessboard in the Middle East.
But any success in this effort should never come at the price of abandoning the United States’ commitment to self-determination, the bedrock principle on which our country was founded and to which it should remain faithful. We should not simply turn our backs on the people of Western Sahara as we try to promote better relations between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Sadly, this cynical decision to recognize Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Morocco’s pledge to establish formal relations with Israel did just that.
Ever since 1975, when Morocco took control of Western Sahara by force following Spain’s withdrawal, the United States and most of the international community have refused to recognize this claim as legitimate. This began to change more than a year ago, when Israel and the Trump administration first approached Morocco to propose a trade-off of Moroccan resumption of formal relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara. At that time, Morocco refused, wisely calculating that bilateral recognition of its sovereignty, even by the United States, would not bring it any closer to its desired goal of international legitimacy. Nothing has changed since then.
The Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is a major and unfortunate change in long-standing U.S. policy under both Democrat and Republican administrations. That policy 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. Mixing the Abraham Accords with the Western Sahara conflict, clearly and unequivocally an issue of self-determination, will not strengthen or expand the accords.
The proponents of this move may not have thought through the possible repercussions of their reversal of that policy. But they could be very serious and far-reaching.
They could have an effect on future negotiations, questioning our commitment to a solution that provides for some form of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, as stated in United Nations resolutions that we have supported.
There’s also the risk of sending a message to the rest of the world that the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of self-determination are pick-and-choose principles for the United States.
There could also be an escalation of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represents the people of Western Sahara, or an opening for a Moroccan-Algerian confrontation.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups could exploit the growing tensions in the region. And the all-but-certain deterioration of our relations with Algeria, the principal supporter of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination, could also result in damage to the growth of our commercial relations, our anti-terrorist cooperation and our efforts to deepen military relations.
The United States has unwisely abandoned its principles for something that will make no difference to the position of the international community and to the resolution of the conflict. Many U.S. allies and others have already made statements to that effect. The upcoming Biden administration would do well to rescind this rash and cynical action. Doing so will not undermine the Abraham Accords.
James A. Baker III served as the 61st U.S. secretary of state from 1989 to 1992 and as the U.N. secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004.
Source: Washington Post