President Donald Trump is touting his latest diplomatic coup — the partial normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel— as yet another achievement for peace and U.S. interests in the Middle East and Africa. But as is so often the case with Trump, his characterization bears little relationship with reality.
Trump’s ill-considered deal can still be walked back when President-elect Joe Biden takes office — if he has the fortitude to weather the criticism from Israel and Morocco.
In fact, this supposed peace deal has ruptured decades of U.S. foreign policy in North Africa, and it sets the stage for more violent conflict, not less. That’s because Trump, in a transparent quid pro quo with Morocco, agreed to officially recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara despite decades of international consensus that the territory’s status had to be peacefully resolved by a referendum.
It is yet another example of the Trump administration’s running roughshod over people and norms it doesn’t care about in the pursuit of its own fleeting glory. And of risking American interests and stability for a photo op.
Western Sahara is an arid, sparsely populated territory running along the coast of northwest Africa south of Morocco and north and west of Mauritania. Until recently, the harsh desert expanse was inhabited primarily by the Sahrawis, a nomadic people of mixed Berber-Arabic and Black African descent.
Western Sahara was a stateless territory lacking a central government when Spain occupied it in 1884. In the 1970s, the Sahrawi people led a successful revolt that culminated in Spain’s beating a hasty retreat in 1975 — only to have neighboring Morocco and Mauritania swoop in. Each considered the territory to have been arbitrarily split away from them by European colonialism.
However, the International Court of Justice that year came to a nonbinding determination that neither Mauritania nor Morocco had pre-existing sovereignty over the region — and its phosphate, offshore oil and fishing resources — despite historic ties. The Sahrawis themselves exhibited an “overwhelming consensus” for independence, according to the United Nations.
The competing claims resulted in violence, and most of the Sahrawi population fled to refugee camps in Algeria, which came under napalm bombardment from Moroccan warplanes. Over the next 15 years, the Sahrawi nationalist Polisario Front, boosted by heavy weapons acquired through sympathetic Algerian and Libyan governments, warred with Moroccan and Mauritanian forces.
While Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979, in 1981 the Moroccan army began building a gigantic 1,700-mile-long artificial sand berm staffed by over 100,000 troops and the longest minefield on the planet to contain the Polisario Front within the even more remote interior of the contested areas.
The conflict had claimed 11,000 lives by 1991, when the U.N. arranged for a cease-fire, freezing the front lines and leaving the territory’s status undetermined pending a referendum. Decades later, Morocco has refused to allow the referendum to take place. Meanwhile, its security forces continue to detain, assault and torture pro-independence Sahrawis in the 80 percent of Western Sahara under Moroccan control, leaving the territory with an abysmal human rights record. The Polisario Front governs the remaining inhospitable 15 percent, but tens of thousands of Sahrawis still reside in Algerian refugee camps.
Since the cease-fire, U.S. policy has generally been one of neutrality on the sovereignty question. Now, though, Trump has unequivocally stated the United States’ support for Morocco’s claims, dismissing the referendum. The State Department is redrawing maps and planning to open a consulate in the region to back up its rhetoric.
The U.S. stance doesn’t legally change the territory’s status more broadly, but it will likely encourage Rabat to double down on its policy of gradually wearing down the Sahrawis by settling ethnic Moroccans in the territory, developing commercial interests with foreign powers there and violently oppressing pro-independence activists.
The dashing of hopes for a referendum could spark a renewed war, as the Sahrawis may come to see violence as the only way to further their goals. This is especially worrying given skirmishes that broke out between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military in November, weeks before Trump’s announcement. Continued fighting risks drawing in Algeria, Morocco’s regional rival, and conflict and instability could cause flows of weapons and refugees to ripple outward across Africa, as has already happened in the Libyan civil war.
The Morocco-Israel deal makes this even more likely, because it apparently came bundled with a $1 billion arms package for Morocco that includes long-endurance surveillance drones and precision-guided missiles and bombs that the Moroccan military could use in Western Sahara.
Of course, Trump’s concession to Morocco has nothing to do with North African security and everything to do with burnishing Trump’s reputation by scoring diplomatic victories on behalf of Israel. Already this year, he has induced the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to normalize relations with Israel by offering generous U.S. arms sales and political concessions.
Certainly, the direct flights and diplomatic services between Morocco and Israel spelled out in the agreement could benefit the more than 1 million Israelis of Moroccan descent and pave the way for other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. But in reality, the deal is more symbolic than substantive. Morocco and Israel already have a long history of discreetly assisting each other through espionage, assassination and military aid. Israel was actually one of the countries that advised the construction of a defensive wall in Western Sahara.
In fact, in 1986, Moroccan King Hassan II attempted a diplomatic opening with Israel, only to be stymied by pressure from other Arab states. Today, the elites ruling wealthy Gulf Arab states are favorably disposed toward Israel because of a common anti-Iran agenda, which Morocco also shares, easing this obstacle.
Given the relationship between Israel and Morocco and the changing Arab orientation toward Israel, the U.S. shouldn’t go out of its way to chaperone two countries already capable of looking after their own — and each other’s — security.
Washington should instead look after its larger national interest in stability and peace in North Africa, where regional conflicts have created havens for terrorist groups. Despite the best efforts of local governments, Morocco and Algeria have proved fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State militant group. Moreover, the arms seeping out of civil war-torn Libya have fed violent conflicts in Mali and Nigeria.
Washington should instead look after its larger national interest in stability and peace in North Africa, where regional conflicts have created havens for terrorist groups.
And that’s before getting to the ostensible American values of democratic self-determination and human rights. Trump shamefully betrays both in the name of burnishing his reputation and those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
Fortunately, Trump’s ill-considered deal can still be walked back when President-elect Joe Biden takes office — if he has the fortitude to weather the criticism from Israel and Morocco. Indeed, Biden would be wise to disregard those who short-sightedly see resumed war in North Africa as an acceptable risk of doing business.