Will a sudden change of direction in US diplomacy broker lasting peace in Western Sahara or will it escalate dormant but perceptible tensions?
Rabat – On December 13, John Bolton, the Trump administration’s national security adviser, unveiled the US’s Africa strategy, stressing Washington’s aim to reinvest in its “global power” image in Africa.
Bolton called for a bold and adventurous US Africa policy to contain and counter China’s and Russia’s “expansionism.” And while reactions to the plan have been numerous, both in tone and number, it is still unclear how the move will translate on the ground in US-Africa relations.
Bolton as key to the new US strategy in Western Sahara
After presenting a strategy set to secure American economic interests, fight terrorism, and ensure that “US aid money is effectively used,” Bolton focused on his “favorite topic,” Western Sahara.
As one of the architects of MINURSO, the UN military mission in Western Sahara which he helped establish in 1991, Bolton expressed frustration that 27 years after its creation, the body has proven “ineffective.” That MINURSO has been unable to organize a referendum in nearly three decades, concluded a dismayed Bolton, was proof that Washington needs to reengineer its diplomatic efforts with relation to the Western Sahara dispute.
Like with Bolton, there is a tendency in some diplomatic circles to slam Morocco for “refusing” for a referendum to be held to once and for all broker a peace settlement in Western Sahara. What often gets sidelined, however, is Algeria’s and Polisario’s refusal for a UN-sponsored independent observation team to evaluate the Tindouf camps’ demographic makeup and determine who “the real Sahrawis” are.
Until Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan which advocates for local autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, Rabat’s position, as recently echoed by a group of “Sahrawi dissidents,” was that Polisario is not a legitimate representative of the Sahrawis. For Rabat, a referendum would be counterproductive until independent observers settle those legitimacy and demographics-related contentious points.
The US’s Africa strategy, and by extension Bolton’s Western Sahara remarks, have been compared to the “imperialist” big stick diplomacy, when great powers exert substantial amounts of soft-sounding hawkish pressure to get desired outcomes.
Bolton may not have thought of the newly unveiled strategy in imperialist terms, but he seemed to agree with the “big stick” characterization of the plan.
In a recent lengthy article for the New Yorker, Nicolas Niarchos wrote that a number of officials with briefing on the ongoing UN-led process in Western Sahara credited Bolton with making possible both the shift towards a shorter MINURSO mandate and the seemingly corresponding diplomatic overtures.
Stalled and frozen for decades, with conflicting parties not even willing to sit at the same negotiating table, the decades-long dispute in Western Sahara may be “nearing its end” thanks to recently regained diplomatic momentum, Niarchos suggested.
The sentiment is mostly derived from the fact that, in merely a few months, Horst Kohler, the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, has succeeded in getting Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front to the same table for talks.
The parties met in early December in Geneva. And although the discussions were mostly—and unsurprisingly—inconclusive, just the fact that they actually met and discussed seemed enough, unheard of in years.
Most importantly perhaps, all parties decided to meet again in March 2019. The second Geneva meeting and the stakeholders’ perceived commitment to brokering a lasting deal has spiked hopes that the Horst Kohler-moderated process will be more effective than other UN-led processes.
According to diplomats who spoke to the New Yorker’s Niarchos, however, Bolton’s high-pressure-inspired diplomacy is single-handedly responsible for the perceived diplomatic overtures under Kohler’s auspices. “Officials present [in Geneva] told me that President Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, played an important role in getting the groups to the table,” Niarchos wrote.
The “Bolton effect,” as one of Niarchos’s diplomatic sources went on to argue, was the plausible explanation for such a quick change of pace and direction in how the international community, particularly the UN, is now dealing with the Western Sahara question.
The allusion is familiar to Western Sahara observers. Bolton’s reservations about MINURSO’s indispensability in Western Sahara and his insistence that the body’s mandate be considerably cut to exert more pressure on conflicting parties explained why its mandate was only extended by six months late last year, instead of the traditional one-year extension period.
Only 2 Americans are ‘serious’ about Western Sahara
Addressing the effect of his anti-MINURSO stance, Bolton not only agreed with the “Bolton effect” rhetoric, he brought it to a much higher level. In the process, he indirectly accused the international community and previous US governments of not doing their homework in solving the crisis.
“You have to think of the people of Western Sahara, think of the Sahrawis, many of whom are still in refugee camps near Tindouf, in the Sahara Desert, and we need to allow these people and their children to get back and have normal lives.”
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI raised similar concerns in a recent speech, albeit in a different tone.
“I should like to say today, in a very straightforward and responsible way, that Morocco stands ready for a direct and frank dialogue with our sister nation, Algeria, in order to settle the transient and objective differences impeding the development of relations between the two countries,” King Mohammed VI said.
While the King did not directly reference Western Sahara, observers have been quick to extend Morocco’s “honest dialogue” offer to the Western Sahara question. (It is an open secret that Algeria’s continued support for the Polisario Front is a central element of the cold diplomatic ties between Algiers and Rabat).
The backbone of Bolton’s “frustration,” as he himself stressed, is that the large majority of diplomats—American and foreign—either do not understand the real stakes of the Western Sahara dispute, or are not genuinely willing to broker a lasting settlement.
“The conflict has not been handled well, and that’s why it continues to persist. There are two Americans who really focus a lot on the Western Sahara: one’s James Baker, the other’s me…. I think there should be intense pressure on everybody involved to see if they can’t work it out.”
Encounter of patient and impatient diplomatic methods
Bolton’s unveiling of the US’s Africa strategy engendered a flurry of commentaries and news reports.
While some focused on the plan’s perceived neo-imperialism and paternalism-leaning ideology conceiving of Africa as a continent waiting to have great powers (US, China, Russia) solve its problems, others focused on how Bolton’s Western Sahara remarks would be received in Morocco.
The underlying geopolitics of Bolton’s position on Western Sahara “must be freaking out Morocco,” Al Monitor reported. “Judging by [Bolton’s] performance at the Heritage Foundation, it sounds like he is ready to oversee the demise [of MINURSO],” the outlet emphasized.
Specialists who spoke to Al Monitor bore out the newspaper’s alarmist reading of Bolton’s Heritage Foundation speech. “The statement in itself is likely to deteriorate the climate between Washington and Rabat,” said Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.
While such alarmism is warranted—and was echoed in some Moroccan circles—no official reactions from either Rabat or Washington have given the remarks the gravity that news articles have.
As far as Morocco is concerned, diplomacy entails patience and working with what you are given, Omar Hilale, Morocco’s permanent representative to the UN, said to Niarchos.
“For us, we work with it, if they want six months, O.K. They want one year, it’s O.K for Morocco,” Hilale said.
That sentiment echoed foreign affairs minister Nasser Bourita’s remarks when asked by France’s Le Monde newspaper about the implications of the shortening of MINURSO’s mandate. The important thing, Bourita argued, is what the mandate achieves, not how long it lasts. He said the fuss about it all was a “false debate.”
Judging by Hilale’s statements which stressed Rabat’s composure as the UN-led process unfolds, at play is an encounter between patient and impatient camps on an easy-looking but deep-rooted crisis.
Bolton’s frustration, in the meantime, is no matter for contention. “I just get impatient when I think about it,” the New Yorker article quoted him as stressing, in reference to what he largely sees as an ineffective MINURSO.
Meanwhile, “Polisario officials, for their part, have welcomed the renewed U.S. engagement,” Niarchos noted. He added that, like Bolton, the separatist front is losing its patience.
While Rabat has not been heard on what it makes of the so-called Bolton effect, there is an entrenched sense that the Bolton-as-key narrative has been disproportionately magnified. One senior security adviser, however important, cannot irreversibly derail the longtime Rabat-Washington alliance.
“Our bilateral relationships are so strong that they will not be jeopardized by any person,” Ambassador Hilale said.