Why Morocco is disappointed with the United States

Why Morocco is disappointed with the United States
Comment: Conflicting statements from US diplomats have left Rabat unsure of Washington's support for its Western Sahara plans, writes Samir Bennis.
8 min read
11 May, 2016
The United States is the penholder for the Security Council resolution on Western Sahara [Getty]

Moroccan authorities have voiced their disappointment with the position the United States has adopted over Western Sahara. 

The United States is the penholder for the Security Council resolution on Western Sahara. In this capacity, it is the country that prepares the first elements of the draft resolution that it submits to the other members of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara - France, UK, Russia and Spain - before it submits it to the other members of the Security Council for consideration and adoption.


But while the United States has long stated that its position with regards to the conflict has not changed and it considers the Moroccan autonomy plan "serious, credible [and] realistic", the way in which it conducted negotiations on this year's draft resolution revealed a double-discourse on the conflict.


What caused Rabat's disappointment is that the first draft addressed Morocco's decision to request the departure of the civilian component of MINURSO - the UN's mission to establish a referendum on indpendence - without addressing the cause of that decision.

In fact, the US administration overlooked the fact that the main cause of the friction between Morocco and the UN Secretariat was Ban Ki-moon's biased statement in the Tindouf camps in March - in which he described Morocco's presence in Western Sahara as an "occupation".



Morocco's disappointment is all the more justified as it comes after multiple statements in which US officials repeated the same position they have held for years.

At the height of the tension between Morocco and Ban in March, and while Moroccans were displeased with the fact that the US was leaning towards Ban's position during Security Council meetings, Washington sent a number of signals to assure Morocco that its position regarding the conflict had not changed.

It first made a statement through a tweet published by Kurtis Cooper, a spokesperson for the US mission to the United Nations. On Sunday March 20, Cooper said that Washington considered Morocco's autonomy plan "serious, realistic, credible, and it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of Western Sahara".

The same statement was repeated afterwards by the ambassador of the United States in Rabat, Dwight L Bush, in an exclusive interview with Maghreb Arab Press.

A few days later, on March 23, during a phone call between King Mohammed VI and John Kerry, the US secretary of state told the king that the US position on the conflict remained unchanged within the framework agreed by the monarch and the president in November 2013 in Washington.

Kerry added that "dialogue between the two countries would continue to achieve, on that basis, a final solution to this regional dispute".

The same position was again repeated during a closed-door meeting of the Security Council on April 7 held to receive a briefing from Hervé Ladsous, under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations, on MINURSO's activities after Morocco asked its civilian component to leave.

During the meeting, the US representative said that the "Moroccan autonomy plan is an approach that could meet the aspirations of the population of Western Sahara". At the same time, US Ambassador Samantha Power said that her delegation continued to call for the return of MINURSO's civil component to Western Sahara.

The first draft was submitted... while Morocco's foreign minister was on his way to Washington

Conflicting views?

What is striking when one analyses how the US conducted the negotiations that led to the adoption of Resolution 2285 is the total disconnect between what US officials repeated in public for several years and their actual position on the draft.

This was evident when the US mission avoided contact with the Moroccan mission ahead of the submission of the first draft to the Group of Friends. In addition, the first draft was submitted on Monday April 25 - while Morocco's Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar was on his way to Washington to meet with US officials.

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This means the US officials who decided to go ahead with the first draft hurried to do so without waiting to know the conclusions of Mezouar's meeting with his American counterparts.

The US move can be explained under two hypotheses: either the statements made by US officials were a mere smokescreen aimed at luring Moroccan officials into a false sense of security, or there are conflicting views within the American administration itself, which prevent it from having a clear-cut position on the dispute.

While there is no doubt that Moroccans cannot expect clear support from the current US administration, the most plausible hypothesis that explains this disconnect between statements and actions is the existence of conflicting views at the highest level of the US administration.

Here, I should point out that President Obama's National Security Adviser since June 2013 has been Susan Rice.

Rice was understood to be behind the draft resolution submitted by the US in 2013 which, for the first time, called for the expansion of MINURSO's prerogatives to include the monitoring of human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps. At the time, it was alleged that the proposal was made by Rice without consulting Washington.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, when one knows that Rice was Obama's first choice for Secretary of State to succeed Hillary Clinton, and also the influence of the National Security Adviser on the orientation of US foreign policy, the idea that Rice had taken the initiative to submit that controversial draft resolution makes more sense and seems more likely to reflect reality.

Based on this hypothesis, it appears more plausible that the US position in this year's resolution and the unprecedented pressure it put on Morocco was dictated by Susan Rice's role in the cabinet, rather than by the Department of State. In an article that I published in June 2013, I had anticipated how Rice's appointment as National Security Adviser would affect Morocco.

I believe that Morocco has anticipated this double rhetoric in the US position. This is what pushed King Mohammed VI in his speech at the Morocco-GCC summit in Riyadh on April 20 to say that some countries showed "expressions of friendship and alliance on the one hand, and stab you in the back, with the other".

Maturing relations

The position adopted by the US administration in recent years reveals not only conflicting views within the White House, but also that relations between Morocco and the United States have not reached a level of maturity that would make them immune from any change of administration.

Unlike its relations with France and Spain, who both have adopted in recent years a clear position with regards to the conflict, irrespective of the party heading the government, US-Morocco relations are still subject to the party at the helm of the White House.

Morocco cannot expect the current US administration to provide it with the support it deserves

This prompted King Mohammed VI to say in his Riyadh speech that Morocco had "a problem because of frequently changing governments in some of these countries. With every change, significant efforts have to be exerted to introduce new officials to all aspects of the Moroccan Sahara issue and to make them aware of its real implications".

This is also what prompted King Mohammed VI to call on the US administration in November 2014 to clarify its position. During a speech he delivered on the 38th anniversary of the Green March on November 6, 2014, the Moroccan king highlighted the US' ambiguous position on the conflict.

"While valuing its support for Morocco's efforts and for the negotiating process on the basis of the autonomy initiative, I am calling, today, for a clear position concerning this conflict," he noted.

While I have the intimate conviction that Morocco cannot expect the current US administration to provide it with the support it deserves as a long-standing strategic ally, I believe Moroccan officials should devise a short-term, medium-term and long-term strategy aimed at overcoming the obstacles that prevent Morocco from enjoying the same level of relations of trust with the Democrats.

It is more likely that the next US president will be a Democrat. Though Hillary Clinton, who is perceived as a friend of Morocco, has more chances to win the US presidency than her competitors, Moroccans cannot take her support for Morocco's position on the Sahara for granted.

Hence the urgency to put in place a clear strategy to penetrate the Democrat circles that are still not convinced of Morocco's strategic importance for the US or who hold unfriendly views of Morocco.

No matter what we say about the role that other influential members of the Security Council play in the conflict, the main player remains the United States and the decision lies in Washington, hence the need for Morocco to strengthen its relations with the US at all levels while diversifing and balancing its relations with other major partners.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. 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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