Rekindling relations? Rabat and Trump's GOP

Rekindling relations? Rabat and Trump's GOP
7 min read
14 Nov, 2016
Comment: Friction between Morocco and the Obama administration may soon be a thing of the past, as Rabat looks to rekindle its old ties with America's Republicans, writes Samir Bennis
Former US President George W. Bush meets King Mohamed VI of Morocco in 2003 [AFP]

Commentators and observers the world over, including in Morocco, were taken aback by what many describe as the biggest surprise in the history of US elections. Trump won the presidency of the United States, disproving the majority of the polls published on the eve of the elections.

The outpouring of astonishment at Donald Trump's victory is commensurate with their enthusiasm following Barack Obama's election in 2008. Throughout the world - especially the Arab world - people were optimistic, and believed he would bring positive change to US foreign policy.

However, eight years later, his legacy, especially in the Arab world, has proved catastrophic. Obama made many promises that has not kept. His two presidential campaigns drew on unifying and inspirational rhetoric, but on the ground, his policies for the most part proved to be similar to those of his predecessors, if not worse.  

Donald Trump, on the other hand, started his campaign with different rhetoric. He was aggressive and racist towards Muslims and Hispanic immigrants, and derided people with disabilities. However, being a candidate is one thing, but being at the helm of the US administration is quite another.

It is likely that Trump's views will no longer be the same as those espoused when he was a candidate. People across the Arab world are hopeful that Trump will restore the ties that have been broken with many Arab countries, and that he will not follow the same ostensibly tolerant policy towards Iran.

On the other hand, it is possible that Moroccan-American relations will return to normal, and will not be affected by the question of the Sahara as much as they were during President Obama's second term.

It is likely that Trump's views will no longer be the same as those espoused when he was a candidate

For the past four years, the US administration has adopted a position that varied between ambiguous support for Morocco's position on the Sahara, and at times hostile action on the ground. This was demonstrated by the draft resolution it presented to the Security Council in April 2013, calling for the establishment of a human rights monitoring mission in the Western Sahara.

Last March and April, during the friction between Morocco and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United States showed no support for Morocco in the Security Council. Without the strong support of France, Spain, Egypt and Senegal, the UN's most important body may well have sided with the UN chief, and adopted a resolution against Morocco's interests.

The Obama administration's stance on the Western Sahara was influenced by some hawkish figures within the Democratic Party, especially Susan Rice, who became the president's National Security Adviser in June 2013 after spending four years as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Despite multiple statements issued by Washington insisting that its position hadn't changed and that it continues to consider Morocco's autonomy plan for the Western Sahara as a "serious and realistic" option, it was clear that Obama's team was also influenced by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, led by Kerry Kennedy.

Traditional ties between Morocco and the Republican Party

With Donald Trump on his way to the White House, and the majority of the Senate and Congress for the Republican Party, Kerry Kennedy will not have the same influence in Washington as during Obama's presidency, potentially working in Morocco's favor.

Republican US presidents have worked positively for relations between Morocco and the United States. Morocco has been able to build bridges of trust and communication with influential members of the Republican party since the days of the Cold War. This is thanks, in part, to the ideology of the GOP, and its foreign policy doctrine, giving priority to security issues and the strengthening of economic relations.

Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Rabat has been focusing its efforts on garnering the attention and sympathy of the Democrats

The success of Morocco's plan to organise the Green March in November 1975 and recover the Western Sahara was due in part to the support of President Gerald Ford's administration and the shuttle diplomacy of his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

The same level of cooperation between the two countries was maintained during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush. 

This was reflected in the positions taken by the United States concerning the Western Sahara during former President George W. Bush's second term. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was behind the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1754 in April 2007, which praised the Moroccan proposal for autonomy. This resolution constitutes the basis of the UN political process.

Moreover, during the deliberations of the Security Council on the issue in October 2007, Rice put pressure on the Polisario Front and attempted to submit a draft resolution that considered the Moroccan proposal as the sole basis for negotiations.

And in March 2008, she called on the United Nations Secretary General to mention in his annual report that the Moroccan proposal was the only basis for reaching a political solution to the conflict. She also urged the other members of the Security Council to issue a statement reflecting the clear support of the Moroccan proposal, but attempts have been blocked by objections from Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Between optimism and caution

Rabat has many cards to play to preserve its traditionally strong ties with the Republican Party and build bridges of communication with Donald Trump, such as its counter-extremism efforts.

However, the strength of Rabat's ties with Washington will depend on how Moroccan officials play their hand with Trump's inner circle of advisers and aides. Morocco's counter-extremism efforts, as well as the strong level of cooperation between the military and the intelligence services of both countries, are both sure to play a role in shaping relations. Trump's choice of Secretary of State will also be crucial in dictating the nature of relations between Rabat and Washington.

The same level of cooperation between the two countries was maintained during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush

The extent to which Morocco maintained its bridges of communication with influential members of the Republican Party over the past eight years, is also likely to influence the role. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Rabat has been focusing its efforts on garnering the attention and sympathy of the Democrats. It remains to be seen to what extent these efforts may have been to the detriment of Morocco's ties with the GOP.

Morocco should be braced for all scenarios and keep a close eye on the names of the people Donald Trump is considering in his policy team. It should keep in mind that, even though it has traditionally maintained friendly and more successful relationship with the Republican Party, there are some influential members who look upon Morocco's position on the Western Sahara unfavourably.

John Bolton - former US Ambassador to the United Nations, who is among the candidates for Trump's Secretary of State, is an influential GOP member who does not support Morocco's position on the conflict.

With Donald Trump on his way to the White House, and the majority of the Senate and Congress for the Republican Party, the future of relations between the countries is now very much to play for.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York.

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.


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