Rabat – Mike Pompeo, the chief of the US diplomacy, is due to arrive in Rabat on December 5 for a one-day visit during which he is scheduled to meet with King Mohammed VI and several Moroccan officials to discuss US-Morocco relations. Pompeo’s visit comes at a time when Morocco and the US, while vowing to maintain and nurture their “strategic partnership,” have had minor divergences on specifics.
Morocco has not had a US ambassador in years, or more precisely, since Trump took office. David Fischer, Trump’s ambassadorial nominee for Rabat, has failed to secure congressional approval, and the issue has since been left to rest in the diplomatic drawers in Washington.
With so many sensitive issues on Trump’s plate in recent months—impeachment investigations, the 2020 elections, and the controversial Trump peace plan for Palestine, among many others—it is even likely that the topic will not be raised for many other months.
But that does not mean that the relationship between Rabat and Washington has waned, or suffered deadly blows. In fact, if anything, aside from the short-lived concern over former senior national security advisor John Bolton’s destructive impact on Morocco-US relations, the two allies have time and again made clear their desire to boost their friendship.
In recent months, Rabat and Washington have made significant inroads in their security cooperation and have expressed a shared enthusiasm to maintain “strategic partnership” on counterterrorism, deradicalization projects, and a wide range of “shared interests” and priorities in Africa.
In recent comments on Pompeo’s visit to Morocco, one senior US official described Morocco as “leader in [countering violent extremism] and bringing back foreign terrorist fighters” and “just a great partner”
The suggestion, as has been repeatedly stressed by Pompeo himself in previous statements on US-Morocco relations, is that Morocco is not only an invaluable partner; it is indispensable for the US’ “national interests” in Africa.
Morocco is often referred to in diplomatic circles in Washington as a bastion of religious tolerance and socio-political stability.
In the world of strategic diplomacy, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing and security cooperation, Morocco’s political stability and world-renowned counter-terrorism architecture are precious, rare, coveted currencies.
Of even greater significance for Morocco is the fact that Pompeo will not extend his visit to Algeria, making it the first time since 1982 that a US Secretary of State visits Morocco without visiting its Algerian neighbor.
This may sound anodyne to many observers. For Morocco, however—and this would hold for any other country in Morocco’s position, especially given the two neighbor’s pointed rivalry on regional issues—the symbolism of the gesture is a vibrant political statement. What is more, that Pompeo’s visit comes just weeks after that of Ivanka Trump is an even stronger vindication of Rabat’s interpretation of the encouraging symbolism of Pompeo’s visit.
“In the spirit of the longstanding friendship between our people and governments, we look forward to strengthening our relationship in the years to come. Ours is a strategic partnership based on our work to advance our shared vision of a secure, stable, and prosperous North Africa and the Middle East,” Pompeo said of Morocco-US relations in late July, as he congratulated King Mohammed VI on his two decades on the throne. One should expect him to stand by that line of reasoning in his scheduled meetings with Moroccan leaders.
The quest for compromise
From there, however, the sense of déjà-vu, the familiar narrative of Morocco being the US’ strongest ally in North Africa is set to get a little bit more colorful, complicated. For behind the diplomatic platitudes, the mutually congratulatory tone in statements from the US and Morocco about their partnership, there have been tiny cracks, mild disagreements on specific issues.
The last-minute change in Pompeo’s Moroccan schedule—delaying, shortening his stay, as well including Israel in the broader picture—suggests that Washington plans to push Rabat to change course on Trump’s “Deal of the Century” in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is a question on which Morocco has made its stance crystal clear, with the country’s Lower House recently condemning Israel’s Netanyahu’s adventurism in the West Bank and vowing to support Palestinians’ “right to return.”
Meanwhile, Morocco will most likely use Pompeo’s visit to try to have the US provide a more decisive support for its Western Sahara agenda.
While the US has been among countries that have consistently acknowledged the seriousness and pragmatism of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan—with recent reports even suggesting that Washington was behind the very idea of Morocco’s autonomy proposal—there is an abiding feeling in Rabat that its American ally has not been sufficiently supportive of its Western Sahara aspirations.
Some Morocco-friendly analysts have recently gone as far as boldly accusing the US of betraying Morocco, in spite of Rabat’s proven, unwavering commitment to its partnership with Washington.
While it is unlikely that Morocco support the “Deal of the Century” to secure more consequential US support for its Western Sahara agenda, a change in the US’s current stance on Western Sahara—a delicate diplomacy based on keeping the status quo by hurting neither of the conflicting parties—is equally improbable in the short or medium term.
Morocco’s diplomacy seems to have espoused an active hope-inspired belief that patience and sustained efforts to show the genuineness of its Western Sahara agenda will eventually pay off. This a policy shift that has been labeled as “proactive diplomacy”—a marked move away from reactionary diplomacy. It means that Rabat will probably not see its divergences with the US as an insurmountable impasse.
From Morocco’s perspective, bold, consequential diplomatic actions come, more often than not, after a series of seemingly insignificant, symbolic gestures. The successive visits of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and now Pompeo are, as far Moroccan diplomats are concerned, good omens for the bilateral relations as well as Morocco’s long-term strategic interests. It is hard, at this point, to argue that they are wrong.