“In quiet approaches over the past several months,” the memo explains, “we had encouraged [King] Hassan to opt for a negotiated solution through direct talks with the Polisario.”
Dorset – Recently declassified official documents from 1999 show that the Bill Clinton administration encouraged Morocco to abandon the idea of a referendum in Western Sahara and “opt for a negotiated solution through direct talks with the Polisario.”
The documents, released on May 2, 2020, show that the US has seen Algeria as a key actor in the conflict since before 1999 and reflect the strength of US support for Morocco, both in terms of the Western Sahara question and King Mohammed VI’s leadership.
The memoranda, dated July 25,1999, make up a briefing summary from the US Office of the Executive Secretary to the president. The notes give Clinton an overview of his upcoming visit to Rabat for the funeral of King Hassan II. Clinton’s national security advisor Samuel Berger penned the memoranda.
The documents outline the US government’s policy in Morocco and set out talking points for the president. Clinton was to meet the young King Mohammed VI, then Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, and a number of Arab leaders attending the funeral.
In the briefing document, Berger emphasizes there is no future in the plans for a referendum in Western Sahara.
He adds that Morocco will not “countenance any outcome under which it would lose sovereignty over the area.”
The memorandum then outlines US policy on the territorial conflict between Morocco and the breakaway group known as the Polisario Front.
“In quiet approaches over the past several months,” Berger explains, “we had encouraged [King] Hassan to opt for a negotiated solution through direct talks with the Polisario.”
“Former secretary Baker, in his capacity as UN special envoy, has been playing an important public and behind-the-scenes role. Accordingly, we may witness a prolonged period of paralysis.”
“Outside actors” could, however, destabilize the road to negotiations, Berger warns.
“Two outside actors will be critical in this regard, both of whom may be tempted to test the young King early on.”
“For the Polisario, the death of their arch-enemy provides an opportunity,” Berger explains to the US president.
The second “actor” in the conflict is Algeria, despite Algeria’s ongoing insistence it is merely an “observer” in the conflict.
“More significant,” the document emphasizes, “will be the approach taken by Algeria.”
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who came to power in April 1999, “has gone out of his way to improve relations with King Hassan,” the document states.
The two North African leaders had exchanged “friendly letters” and arranged a meeting due to take place a few weeks after King Hassan’s death. Berger’s briefing implicitly suggests the Algerian approach to a Morocco in transition may be less friendly under the leadership of an untried, young monarch.
Points to discuss with King Mohammed VI
Clinton also received clear instructions on what to discuss with the newly installed King Mohammed VI after his father’s funeral. The document describes the young King as “intelligent, witty and reform minded.”
The talking points emphasize the US’ strong, historic relationship with King Hassan II and Morocco. “You lost a great father and the world a unique leader and statesman. He was a good friend and I relied on him very much,” the script says.
Clinton’s lines included: “I want our relationship to be as close as [the] one I enjoyed with your father. When you need me, let me know. I’ll be there.”
The script emphasizes the transition will be difficult, but the US will support Morocco and King Mohammed “every step of the way.”
On the subject of Western Sahara and the Israel-Palestine conflict, Clinton’s script says, “Know we will continue to work closely together, on [the] peace process and on Western Sahara where a peaceful solution must be found.”
Throughout the document, in both overviews and scripts, the US’s strong relationship with Morocco and commitment to supporting the new King and government is given heavy emphasis.
The document also gives Clinton talking points should he meet with Algeria’s Bouteflika at the funeral.
The notes on Bouteflika and Algeria are much less effusive than the support the document pledges for Morocco.
“President Bouteflika has been sending countless messages that he wants closer relations with the United States,” the document states.
Berger then outlines the steps Boutelflika had taken in Algeria in terms of reconciliation and progress. “How far he will go on the path to genuine democracy and economic reform remains to be seen,” the document notes.
The memorandum tells Clinton: “You should tell Bouteflika we are following his progress closely, welcome the steps he has taken to put an end to the conflict and promote democracy, human rights, and economic reform.”
“The message should be that, if he does so, we will stand by Algeria,” Berger writes.
Clinton is also instructed to “encourage him [Bouteflika] to continue the rapprochement with Rabat.”
‘Sahara Policy History’
The declassification of the 1999 documents comes after the release of a previously declassified US document in 2019. The “Sahara Policy History” document revealed that Morocco’s Autonomy Plan came at the urging of the US.
The document appears to have been written by then Moroccan Ambassador to Washington Aziz Mekouar and gives a potted history of the US’s involvement in the Western Sahara conflict.
For the past 10 years or more, Morocco’s stance on the Western Sahara conflict has been rooted in dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. Rabat sums up its vision for the future of the disputed region in the 2007 Autonomy Plan.
The Autonomy Plan would leave Morocco with sovereignty over the region, so preserving its territorial integrity, but would grant the Sahrawi population autonomy through devolved government, under the centralized government in Rabat.
The “Sahara Policy History” revealed that the autonomy initiative came after significant encouragement from the US.
“To solve the problem” in Western Sahara, the declassified text explained, “Morocco proposed in 2007, at American urging, a plan for a very broad autonomy for the region.”
The 2019 declassified text runs in parallel with the information from the 1999 Clinton administration document.
“The present state of play on this issue is a direct result of an American initiative in 1999 to change course on how best to resolve the problem. The abandonment of the referendum option has been an American policy initiative, not a Moroccan one, and it took a very difficult internal political debate for Morocco to follow the American request to propose autonomy for the Sahara.”
The birth of the Autonomy Plan
In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco, installing a peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, in the disputed territory until the conflicting parties could reach an agreement on a referendum.
By 1998, however, it had become all too clear, because of fundamental disagreements between Morocco and Polisario over who should be allowed to vote, that a referendum would never take place.
According to the declassified policy text, the US State Department produced a “policy review” in December 1998 on potential solutions to the stalemate.
The review concluded the referendum option was a “dead end,” according to the declassified document.
Instead of the referendum alternative, the document explains the US urged a “political solution” on the basis of a “negotiated, political solution to the problem.”
The declassified policy document specifies the US would prefer a solution that “continued Moroccan sovereignty in the Sahara, but with the granting of a broad and substantial (by international standards) autonomy for the territory.”
However, according to the policy history, King Hassan did not immediately warm to the idea of an autonomy initiative in Western Sahara.
“He lacked confidence that Algeria would be prepared to bargain in good faith on such a compromise—nor was it clear that he had much confidence in the willingness or ability of the United States to become a full partner in bringing Algeria to this point of view,” the document outlines.
However, by 1999, just weeks before security adviser Berger wrote Clinton’s script for King Hassan’s funeral, the aging monarch had entered into a rapprochement with Algerian President Bouteflika. He believed, according to the policy document, that “a solution along the lines of the American proposal was now possible.”
King Hassan died just three days after agreeing to the proposal, leaving his son, Mohammed VI, to fulfill his vision for a unified Morocco.
Morocco presented its Autonomy Plan to the UN in 2007 and the initiative continues to draw backing from international observers and voices within the peacekeeping negotiations.
In a letter to Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, King Mohammed VI submitted the Autonomy Plan and affirmed Morocco’s commitment to a consensual solution to the dispute in Western Sahara.
Greece, the US, France, Qatar, and Jordan, among others, have all made clear their ongoing support for Morocco’s vision in Western Sahara, calling the initiative “credible and serious.” It remains to be seen, however, when and if the historic support from the US and other key allies will materialize into tangible progress and finally end the decades-long dispute.