For all his many personal shortcomings and questionable grasp of geopolitics, Trump made the right choice by supporting Morocco’s Western Sahara position.
Rabat – On December 10, US President Donald Trump took the international community by surprise when he recognized the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco over its southern provinces. At bottom, however, the decision was by no means a spectacular deviation from a default American position on regional, global security and stability.
In fact, Trump’s Western Sahara move reflects the new US approach on matters of strategy and security, as well stated in the “ Global Fragility Act 2019 ,” a bipartisan law focused on preventing extremism and promoting stability and security in areas at risk from several factors of destabilization.
Albert Einstein, a leading light in modern science, teaches us that apprehending the future necessitates learning from the past. Nevertheless, the past of this issue is tied with Africa’s fate. Forty years ago, the bad omen appeared at the start of the decolonization tides.
The endurance of old rivalries
During discussions to create an African organization to advance pan-African interests, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), the fracture between the Casablanca and Morovia groups elucidated the fragility of a continent torn between competing forces, unsure of which path to follow. Emphasizing this internal ideological divide was the spook of several non-state forces whose allegiances were sometimes opaque.
Here was a newly-independent and vibrant Africa, coming of age as an important and crucial player in the coming, new world order, yet struggling to act in unison when confronted with existential choices. Then as now, one prevailing image of the continent — at least on issues of strategic diplomacy — is that of a peripheral actor still freezing in the consequences of the Cold War, a tense geopolitical competition between the Soviet and Western axes.
Despite the much-celebrated fall of the Berlin wall, geopolitical rivalries and ideological conflicts have continued in other, polymorphous forms. In order to understand those conflicts and the existence of more than twenty seven separatists movements in the African continent, history suggests that we pay more attention to apprehending how seemingly far-flung great power politics still affects — and sometimes dictates — much of what takes place in Africa.
Furthermore, the US recognition of the Moroccanness of the Sahara region is also a fight over Africa’s past and future. The situation in Libya and many states in western Africa could transform North Africa and the Sahelo-Saharan corridor into a ticking bomb scenario. This current conflict in the region is the culmination of the long-running clash between two opposing visions.
The first one, led by Morocco, is materialized by the ability of the Maghreb region to construct a unique entity to face all of the region’s security threats and economic challenges. Driving this vision is the need for common Maghrebi aspirations, premised on investing in a shared future of regional stability and socio-economic prosperity.
MENA’s axis of chaos
By contrast, the second vision is — and unfortunately so — essentially antagonistic. Its aim has long been to create an atmosphere of constant geopolitical chaos sustained by a relentless quest for regional supremacy. In the ensuing regional disorder, rather than investing in a shared future, each country is compelled to look out for itself.
Still harboring resentment for past humiliations — the Sand War in the case of the Morocco-Algeria relations — this vision thrives on constant invocation of heroic nationalism. As such, it nourishes hostilities and mutual distrust between people or countries with deep historical and cultural bonds.
This, to a great extent, is the true origin of Algeria’s project vis-a-vis Morocco. And contrary to the mainstream pro-Polisario narrative on the Sahara dispute, Algeria’s obsession with creating an “independent Saharawi state” is only meant to serve its hegemonic strategy in the Maghreb and the Sahel. The goal is to undermine or stifle Rabat so that Algiers can become the undisputed regional hegemon.
To be sure, President Trump’s “historic” recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty on Western Sahara may help restore the US’s credibility as a decisive global leader and broker. The decision was, in many ways, a diplomatic masterstroke ultimately aimed at organizing a badly played symphony, to stand in the way of an increasing pile of foreign actors intending to get boots on the ground and thus influence Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Consider, for example, the Libyan quagmire. Libya’s current geopolitical situation will impact regional dynamics, namely security in the Mediterranan subregion and the Sahel. Many of the external actors involved in the Libyan crisis are looking to set up new military doctrines.
Furthermore, some of those actors have been obstructing Morocco’s and UN diplomatic efforts to end this major conflict, thus undermining the inter-Libyan peace process. The lack of real leadership and commitment in the Euromed space didn’t help the search for a lasting solution.
The US strategic view of this conflict, grafted in a complicated plan to the Moroccan sovereignty issue through a “behind the lines” vision, left space for other actors such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey to reposition themselves and take advantage of the divergence of European countries around this issue.
Polisario’s dangerous liaisons
Beside these geopolitical considerations, Washington’s forceful recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over its southern provinces will stop a human tragedy which has continued for ages. In criminology, the first question that arises during a criminal investigation is: who benefits from the crime ?
By analogy, the first logical and rational question to ask in the Western Sahara tragedy is who benefits from, or is behind, the sequestration of an unknown number of people against their will. Unfortunately, the suffering of Sahrawi children and women, who are used as human shields, continues despite various peace and “political compromise” calls from the international community.
In recent years and months, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has lauded Morocco’s efforts to reach a genuine and lasting political solution to the Sahara issue.
Illustrating the UNSC’s satisfaction with Morocco is that all its recent resolutions to resolve this regional crisis are consistent with Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan. In 2016, a number of EU parliamentarians launched an official referral mechanism to the European Parliament regarding the diversion of humanitarian aid intended for the sequestered population in Tindouf.
More troubling, perhaps, is Polisario’s documented links with global terrorsim. According to several western secret services’ documents, Polisario is involved with different terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations. For many observers, a Polisario-governed Sahara would hijack regional security; it would create a chaotic environment with dire implications for peace and stability in North of Africa and beyond.
Seen in this light, Washington’s support for Rabat’s Western Sahara position is also about furthering the largely effective US-Morocco cooperation on matters of counterrorism and MENA security. The point, as Christopher Miller, former Director of the American National Center for Counterterrorism and the current Secretary of Defense, recently pointed out, is that Morocco is indispensable to US interests in North Africa and the Sahel.
Unfortunately and ironically, some veteran US policymakers — long turned Algeria lobbyists — have disingenuously argued in the past few weeks that Morocco, and not the Polisario Front, is the main culprit for Western Sahara’s prolonged crisis. Supporting Morocco is “dangerous” and misguided, they have brazenly argued.
In addition to unconvincingly challenging the prevailing, pro-Morocco diplomatic consensus on the Sahara question, such claims offer a jaundiced view of the history of the decades-long conflict. But they also reveal that while Trump’s move was a major diplomatic victory for Morocco, Moroccan diplomats still have a lot on their plate.
What counts now is to make sure that the incoming American administration — and many others in the international community — understand not just the factual history of the Sahara crisis, but also the regional implications of supporting separatism in the Sahara or elsewhere in Africa.
Trump got it right this time
This is why it is incumbent upon Washington to play a more active role in a fragile but strategically important region where the power balance is an enduring contest between states trying to preserve their territorial integrity and chaos actors.
In other words, the antagonism in northern Africa between Morocco and Algeria is not a passing, occasional neighbors’ spat over whose Couscous is the best or original version. Rather, it is a geopolitical conflict over the future of geostrategic influence in the region.
As such, Algeria’s war against Morocco is not really about the Polisario Front, which is merely a pawn in a much more complex chess game. As diverse and sometimes malevolent players like Iran, Russia and some African countries look to exploit North Africa’s fragile spots, the coming battles will be fought against the axis of democracy and stability and that of chaos and naked power politics.
For all his many personal shortcomings and questionable grasp of geopolitics, Trump made the right choice by unambiguously siding with Morocco, a reliable American ally. Reversing the outgoing US administration’s move, as America’s Algeria-paid pro-Polisario voices have vociferously suggested, will undermine US interests as well MENA stability and security.
Tamba Francois Koundouno edited this piece.