On January 17, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Appropriation Bill passed by Congress which includes for the first time language mandating that U.S. assistance designated for Morocco be used in the Western Sahara. That move reinforces the policy of the United States to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara while at the same time Rabat grants the former Spanish colonial territory local autonomy.
The Western Sahara might seem irrelevant to U.S. national security, but it is not. Morocco is the only truly stable and friendly country in the Maghreb or the Sahel, and the Western Sahara is on the front line of the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Morocco has also been at the center of some earlier Obama administration missteps when Susan Rice, first as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and then subsequently as national security advisor, sought to empower that the United Nations’ failed mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara also monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. The problem with such an arrangement is, as with everything else in the United Nations, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes subordinate objective fact to propaganda and politics.
Morocco’s respect for human rights has improved tremendously over recent years, as has the access it grants human-rights activists and monitors. Neighboring Algeria—a reactionary, military-dominated regime which has a dismal record and denies access regularly to journalists, diplomats, and human-rights monitors—regularly accuses Morocco of abuses. It knows and takes advantage of the fact that human-rights groups effectively punish access. Why Rice would work to subvert a friendly state and a U.S. ally to the advantage of an unfriendly state and abuser of basic rights remains unclear to the present day, as she has never explained her actions nor her willingness to impose a new change absent consultations with her colleagues across the administration.
Just because two countries might dispute a territory does not mean that the United States should be neutral: Washington should always side with allies and democrats over adversaries and autocrats. Whether with regard to the West Bank, Abkhazia, or Senkaku, the obsessive desire for neutrality simply encourages radicals to stake out more extreme positions. Perhaps Obama hasn’t fully learned that friendship matters but, at least with regard to Morocco and the Western Sahara, he seems headed down the right path.
Now let us hope that Kerry will ensure that the State Department adheres to the will of Congress and actively invests in Morocco’s Western Sahara even if it makes Algeria mad. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat should actively assist U.S. firms that want to do business in the Western Sahara or off its coast. At the same time, the Pentagon should reinforce Morocco’s claim by scheduling port calls for destroyers or cruisers in the Western Sahara, an economic boon to the hotels, resorts, and restaurants of the region’s pristine port cities.