The Potomac-SAIS report on North Africa: Paid Analysis, Partisan Fear Mongering, Bad Policy
By Jacob Mundy
Machiavelli by the Checkbook
At the end of March, a relatively obscure Washington, D.C., think tank called the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies published a report — in conjunction with the conflict management program of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University — arguing largely in support of Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal to solve the Western Sahara dispute. Framed in terms of US policy towards North Africa (Why the Maghreb Matters (PDF)), the report is a thinly veiled effort to provide academic and political legitimacy to a one-sided view of the Western Sahara issue. It precipitated a detailed response from the Western Saharan Union of Writers and Journalists.
The Potomac-SAIS ‘task force’ was likely an initiative organized by the Moroccan-American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered agent of the Kingdom of Morocco. Though MACP’s fingerprints are nowhere to be found in the report, it is an open secret in Washington that this project, culminating in the Potomac-SAIS report, has been in the works for several months. And little surprise, then, that the report’s recommendations attempt to equate US interests with those of the Moroccan Monarchy. Paying for policy is quite normal in Washington.
The Potomac-SAIS report boasts that it is ‘the result of an independent task force on an issue of critical importance to US foreign policy, where it seems that a group diverse in backgrounds and perspectives may nonetheless be able to reach a meaningful consensus’. On the other hand, ‘Task force members are asked to join a consensus signifying that they endorse the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the group, though not necessarily every finding and recommendation’. So while they all apparently agree, we cannot necessarily hold each individual signatory responsible for the content of the report.
Apart from Dr. I William Zartman — Professor Emeritus at SAIS, whose pro-Moroccan views are well known — there is no other recognized expert on the task force who has an extensive scholarly publishing record on the Western Sahara conflict. The effects of Zartman’s partisan bias are quite clear in the report. Yet the arguments suffer from a debilitating series of misrepresentation, fallacies and contradictions. If translated into actual policy, they would prove counter productive at best, disastrous at worst.
Two other names attached to the Potomac-SAIS report, however, suggest the real agenda behind it: General Wesley Clark and Madeline Albright, two leading figures in the Democratic Party. While Morocco’s autonomy initiate played very well with the previous Republican controlled White House, the Obama administration has yet to outline a clear policy towards the dispute. On the same day that the Potomac-SAIS report was published, Edward Kennedy urged his good friend Obama to uphold Western Sahara’s right to self-determination under international law, which Morocco staunchly opposes. With names like Clark and Albright, the Moroccan lobby is obviously seeking to make inroads into the Democratic establishment.
Before examining the shortfalls of the Potomac-SAIS report, it is necessary to background some of the salient historical realities of Western Sahara. The conflict dates back to November 1975, when a Moroccan threat to invade what was then a Spanish colony drove out Madrid lest it face a ‘colonial war’. The native people of Western Sahara had already developed a nationalist conscience and, according to a 1975 UN report, rallied behind the pro-independence Polisario Front, founded in 1973. Since the early 1960s, the United Nations has called for Western Sahara’s self-determination, including independence, and the UN still considers the Western Sahara a Non-Self-Governing Territory — a colony. For this reason, no country in the world yet recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a clear indication of the international census backing self-determination. And given the fact that Morocco refuses to hold a referendum on independence, it is easy enough to deduce the fact that most Western Saharans would likely opt for independence.
Algeria has supported Western Sahara for ideological reasons (self-determination) and regional security interests (keeping Moroccan ambitions in check). Morocco, of course, denies the existence of an authentic Western Saharan nationalism and sees an independent Western Sahara only as an expansion of Algeria’s regional hegemony. France and the United States have traditionally supported Morocco because Morocco furthers Franco-American interests in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East, and because a referendum on independence in Western Sahara could destabilize Morocco by de-legitimizing the Monarchy. Still, a UN mission arrived in 1991, putting an end to the Morocco-Polisario war so that a referendum on independence could finally be held. Morocco’s previous King, Hassan II, had committed to a referendum in 1981, but when he died in 1999, the new King, Mohamed VI, dropped that commitment. In 2007, Morocco proposed a final status solution based on autonomy for Western Sahara within Moroccan sovereignty while Polisario put forward a series of bridging proposals to allow for a referendum. Four rounds of negotiations in 2007 and 2008 produced zero progress towards a solution. In early 2009, a new UN envoy to Western Sahara, former US ambassador Christopher Ross, made his first tour of North Africa. He will report to the Security Council at the end of April.
Sovereignty versus Self-Determination or Sovereignty and Self-Determination?
The Potomac-SAIS report makes the case that the Obama administration should take more interest in North Africa. The primary reason is predictable: terrorism. The broader Northwest Africa region, especially the Sahara-Sahel, the report argues, faces significant security challenges. One of the best ways to achieve security in North Africa is to help create the conditions for regional cooperation. And so resolving the Western Sahara conflict, which prevents inter-regional cooperation, especially between Morocco and Algeria, is key.
The Potomac-SAIS report supports a solution to the Western Sahara conflict based upon ‘autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty’, as proposed by Morocco in 2007. There are two positive reasons put forward for endorsing Morocco’s initiative. One, its alleged status as the ‘only current proposal for a compromise’ (a partisan dismissal of Polisario’s 2007 bridging proposals); two, if implemented, it would rid Morocco and Algeria of a major point of contention, paving the way for renewal of the Arab Maghrib Union (UMA) trading bloc. The latter point is addressed later.
The Potomac-SAIS report also provides some cautionary reasons to support Morocco’s autonomy initiative. An independent Western Sahara ‘likely would remain a source of acrimony and tension between Morocco and Algeria as well as the other bordering states’. The report furthermore alleges that Western Sahara would not constitute a viable independent state on the grounds of its low population and limited natural resources. While the report’s authors are pessimistic for a near term solution given alleged Algerian and Russian obstruction, they claim that U.S. support for Morocco’s autonomy initiative will help build a new consensus for peace.
As we can see, the best arguments in favor of Morocco’s autonomy proposal are, in fact, merely arguments against self-determination for Western Sahara. To say that autonomy is good because independence is bad is not only fallacious, it seeks to posit a false opposition between self-determination and power sharing that would preemptively bind the imagination of mediators. The three decades old impasse in Western Sahara demonstrates that mediators need to get beyond the old dichotomy of sovereignty versus self-determination.
To suggest that an independent Western Sahara will become a failed state or a terrorist safe haven falls back on Bush-style fear mongering and does very little to get the parties to the table where this issue will eventually have to be sorted out. Demonizing and alienating one of the parties to the conflict (i.e., Polisario) is not a recipe for creating trust and mutual respect, it is a recipe for further stagnation. It is surprising that conflict resolution expert such as Chester Crocker would put his good name to these counter productive, highly biased proposals.
Western fears of a failed state in Western Sahara can be easily allayed if the focus of the peace process turns away from highly speculative, distant outcomes. Instead, the focus needs to be on realistic, achievable processes in the here and now. Too much time has been wasted in Western Sahara developing final status solutions and not enough time developing a framework for negotiations that will (1) get the parties to the table and (2) produce substantive talks bridging both of their red-lines: sovereignty and self-determination. Choosing one side in this framework — Moroccan sovereignty — will not make the United States and honest broker; it will only further exacerbate the status quo the Potomac-SAIS report finds so intolerable. The report is as self-contradictory to its own aims as it is partisan.
The current Security Council mandate for Western Sahara seeks ‘achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara’. A non-partisan approach would simply require that the parties commit to this mandate. Polisario would commit to negotiating a power sharing agreement with Morocco and Morocco would commit to putting any agreement to a referendum including the option of independence. Morocco’s autonomy proposal certainly constitutes a serious and credible starting point for negotiations towards a comprehensive power sharing agreement, but Polisario will never discuss it openly unless the Security Council secures Morocco’s commitment to a referendum.
Algeria and Autonomy
The Potomac-SAIS report describes the Western Sahara conflict as a dispute primarily pitting Moroccan and Algerian interests, rather than the UN description, which holds that the two parties to the dispute are Morocco, the de facto administering power, and the people of Western Sahara, represented by Polisario. The report attempts to place some doubt over Polisario’s credibility, not only as a partner for peace, but also as the legitimate representative of Western Sahara. Regarding the latter, one need only answer this question: If Polisario does not represent the interests of the Western Saharan people, then why is Morocco so afraid to hold a referendum on independence? Morocco claims widespread support among native Western Saharans for its forced annexation, yet Morocco is unwilling to put it to a vote. A referendum, not autonomy, would literally end the conflict tomorrow as far as the international community is concerned.
The problem is that Morocco would not win the referendum, so it wants to have the Security Council impose autonomy at the maximum parameters for negotiations on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Rather than Polisario, the Potomac-SAIS report attempts to portray Algeria as the bad guy in the conflict, a view consistent with a Moroccan perspective and Zartman’s scholarship . Yet Algeria did not even get seriously involved in the conflict until after Morocco invaded Spanish/Western Sahara in 1975. This was six years after the first Western Saharan independence movement came into being and nearly a decade after the UN first started calling for Western Sahara’s independence from Madrid. For Algeria, it was Morocco’s unilateral attempt to redraw the map of North Africa in 1975 by annexing Western Sahara — just as Morocco had attempted to annex parts of Algeria in 1963 — that precipitated Algerian support for Polisario. From Algeria’s point of view, its regional security interests dictate that Morocco’s demonstrated history of aggressive irredentism must be kept in check. To adopt a Moroccan reading of the conflict, as the Potomac-SAIS report does, produces poor analysis and impoverishes diplomatic objectivity.
Even if we assume, as the Potomac-SAIS report does, that Algeria has a dog in the fight, how are Algeria’s interests served by an autonomous Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty? Algeria’s regional and geo-strategic interests are not addressed by Morocco’s autonomy proposal, nor does it provide any room for Algeria to save face given Algiers’ longstanding support for Western Sahara’s right to a vote on independence. Without first going through an internationally sanctioned act of self-determination, an autonomous Western Sahara would, logically, become just as much ‘a source of acrimony and tension between Morocco and Algeria’.
The political and intellectual defenders of Morocco’s autonomy proposal continuously trumpet its virtues as a non-zero-sum or win-win solution. Because it is a compromise, they argue, it contains incentives to make peace. Yet from Algeria’s point of view (as described in the Potomac-SAIS report), autonomy is very much a zero-sum, win-lose outcome. If Algeria is so important to the Western Sahara deadlock, as suggested by the Potomac/SAIS report, why then support a solution that does not respect Algeria’s interests but rather boldly defies them? Zartman’s own ground breaking work in the fields of conflict resolution and game theory should tell him this, yet he defends a solution that his own theories would reject.
It is also bizarre to claim that an independent Western Sahara is Algeria’s idea but then to claim that Algeria would allow an independent Western Sahara to become a failed state. Why would Algeria back Polisario’s cause for over thirty years, only to see Western Sahara become a ‘Somalia on the Atlantic coast of North Africa’? Let’s be clear: preventing a failed state in Western Sahara is everyone’s interests. Morocco and the United States do not monopolize this concern. If anyone has a vested interest in a viable Western Sahara, it is, first and foremost, the Western Saharans, followed by Algeria, who has championed their cause. Mauritania, sharing the longest border with Western Sahara and undergoing its own bouts with political instability, is likely a close third ahead of Morocco.
To claim that Algeria is so cynically motivated as to see Western Sahara only as a means to destabilize Morocco — in its current form as a haphazard occupation or in a possible form as a failed state — is unjustified by the record. Not only does Algeria, sadly, have more direct experience with political instability and armed violence than Morocco, it has been intensively engaged in recent efforts to contain unrest in the northern areas of Niger and Mali on Algeria’s southern flank in the Sahara. Likewise, Algeria offered the United States significant cooperation during the early years after 11 September. Relations only cooled after the George W. Bush administration double-crossed Algeria on Western Sahara. In early 2003, the White House asked Algeria to pressure Polisario to accept the 2003 plan, devised by none other than James Baker. Bush also promised Algeria that Washington would press Morocco to accept it too. Though Algeria delivered Polisario, Washington refused to put pressure on Rabat to accept the plan. The Bush administration then went on to support Morocco’s autonomy initiative, which showed further disrespect to Algeria’s interests and dignity.
Algeria and Polisario are well aware of Western fears of a failed state in an independent Western Sahara, one that could become a safe haven for trans-national terrorist groups. For that reason, Polisario put forward its own set of compromise proposals in April 2007, when Morocco also put its autonomy plan on the table. Polisario has offered Morocco significant economic, political and security guarantees should a referendum result in independence. These included the option of allowing Moroccan settlers to remain in Western Sahara. In 2003, Polisario made the significant concession of allowing Moroccan settlers to vote in a referendum on independence. Polisario is also willing to have Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal placed on any referendum ballot so long as it includes independence. Morocco and its supporters have never even attempted to explain why this democratic solution is not viable. Polisario’s leadership is acutely aware of the fact that broad regional cooperation with Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria will be a necessity for a sustainable peace, security and prosperity. Like the Potomac/SAIS report, they often speak of the day when the Arab Maghrib Union will dissolve all the old colonial boundaries and unite North Africa.
Whether out of ignorance or deliberate deception, the Potomac-SAIS report also underestimates the economic viability of Western Sahara. As an independent state, Polisario is willing to maintain the Moroccan settler population, which will boost the population and create natural, social, economic, political and security ties with Morocco. Its main resources, phosphates and fish, are precious dwindling commodities world wide; last summer actually saw phosphate prices increase six-fold over its historic price. Additionally, since 2001, Morocco has engaged several companies to search for hydrocarbon and mineral resources in Western Sahara, suggesting other sources of revenue for an independent Western Sahara. In terms of security, Polisario has proven highly cooperative with the UN mission, foreign governments and, as a full member of the African Union, has participated in joint security exercises with other African states.
What is the way forward?
Contrary to what Morocco and its intellectual supporters say, there is no contradiction between the Security Council taking a strong stance in favor of both power sharing and self-determination. Instead of endorsing a particular final status, the Security Council should endorse a specific framework for negotiations based upon mutual respect for each side. Indeed, recent Security Council resolutions have said as much in their calls for a political solution that respects the right of Western Sahara to self-determination. But the Council needs to make this clearer to the parties. To Morocco, the Council needs to state firmly that its claim on Western Sahara will never be legitimated unless it first passes through a referendum. To Polisario, the Council needs to state clearly that it will never get its referendum unless it is willing to discuss power-sharing with Morocco. Substantive negotiations should be seen as the means to, not the result of, self-determination. This approach has the advantage of addressing the interests of Morocco, Polisario and Algeria without prejudice or favor. Peace in Western Sahara will never be achieved until the parties build the necessary confidence in each other and the Security Council. That trust and respect has to be built at the negotiating table, not through imposed solutions. The Obama administration should choose peace not partisanship.
1. In a recent article, Zartman described the two ‘interested parties’ as Morocco and Algeria. See Zartman, I.W., 2007, Time for a Solution in the Western Sahara Conflict, Middle East Policy, 14, p.181.