Often forgotten among the current crises in the Middle East and North Africa, the unresolved territorial dispute over the Western Sahara has continued to impede closer cooperation among the countries of North Africa for more than 35 years. Approximately the size of Colorado, the territory is administered by the Government of Morocco and contested by a group known as the Polisario Front that operates refugee camps of between 35,000 and 90,000 people near Tindouf, Algeria. For years, bipartisan majorities of Congress and the last three Presidents have advocated for a solution to this issue based on a formula of Moroccan sovereignty and local autonomy. This compromise recognizes our ally Morocco’s historic claims and guarantees local autonomy; and it is based in the reality that an independent state with such few people would fail, contributing further instability in an already volatile region.
Less than two months after the White House meeting where President Obama and King Mohammed VI stressed their “shared commitment” to improve the lives of the people in the Western Sahara, the 2014 Appropriations Bill mandates for the first time that US assistance to Morocco be extended to Western Sahara. This Congressional action helps President Obama put solid deeds behind the commitment he made to the US’s oldest friend, a strategic partner in a region of the world where we need our friends more than ever. With so much turmoil throughout the region – from Syria to Libya to Mali to Iran -- the US is fortunate to have such a partnership with a country noted for its continuing stability and progress toward democracy. Taking these steps to reaffirm our commitment to that partnership provides tangible US support where we can actually make a difference in the Arab world.
This is especially important given that the Western Sahara conflict has stood in the way of regional political and economic cooperation sorely needed to bring peace, security, and development to North Africa. As the UN has warned, the desolate conditions in the Polisario refugee camps have created a “tinderbox” ready to explode into extremism and provide recruits for a growing terrorist threat. Congress’s tangible action together with President Obama’s recent expression of support, demonstrate America’s resolve to firmly address this issue. The sooner and more clearly the surrounding countries of North Africa recognize this new US support, the more likely it is that the United Nations negotiator charged with formulating a political compromise will find a solution that provides autonomy for the people of the Sahara under the stable and friendly country of Morocco.
Morocco has invested billions of dollars in the southern provinces in the consolidation of the road infrastructure, the construction of schools, hospitals, and other development projects, the constant goal is the improvement of living conditions of people in this part of the Kingdom and pave the way to autonomy.
Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco.A state that is occupying a territory, in which it has claims that most of the world doesn't recognize, is being supported unconditionally by the White House and Congress. US funds are being given to that country to annex the area and provide limited autonomy for the people who live there, but no one wants to see a state there. There is a danger of terrorism if the situation would be left alone so this country, America's good friend, will be trusted to secure the area and develop the occupied territory in an intelligent and fair manner. Many people from this country have moved into the disputed area, even changing the demographic nature of the occupied areas, but this is not considered a problem and no one is demanding that these settlers be forced to leave. The ally has already built an infrastructure in that region where none existed before. No one wants to create a state that will undoubtedly fail, because that will add to instability in the region and the larger Arab world.
But for some reason the logic does not apply elsewhere, where US policy is the exact opposite - to deny a stable friend of the US rights to its own historic areas, to create a state that is sure to fail and that will destabilize the region, to ignore and downplay the existing terrorists in the area who swear daily to destroy the friendly country.
It isn't only the US, of course - Europe also has no problem with this occupation.
Why there is such inconsistency?