The United States government is putting another alliance at risk—this time with Morocco, which is a little like screwing up Canada. The White House is partly to blame, but the main culprit here is the State Department, the one institution that should be the least likely to drop the ball diplomatically since managing diplomatic relations is its job.
Morocco’s main foreign policy problem is its Cold War with next-door Algeria which backs the Polisario—a communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moammar Qaddafi. The Polisario claims the Western Sahara region in the south of Morocco, vacated by Spanish imperialists the same week its long-time dictator General Franco finally died in 1975. Most Americans have never heard of the Western Sahara, but wrapping up this holdover conflict from the Cold War is at the top of Morocco’s agenda, and there’s no excuse for the State Department—and especially its diplomats in Morocco—to blow it off like everyone stateside.
Yet State is blowing it off. And State is straining the US relationship with Morocco not only with its flippant attitude that the Sahara doesn’t matter but also with its nonsense-on-stilts belief that North Africa is some kind of Arab-Muslim Las Vegas, that was happens there stays there. On the contrary, the region is a conduit for guns, drugs, and human trafficking into Europe. It’s also an incubator for terrorists with a global outlook and global ambitions.
Libya is on the verge of disintegrating into a failed militia state like Somalia. In 2012 Al Qaeda-linked terrorist seized power in Northern Mali and posed a big enough threat that France saw little choice but to invade. Egypt is a darker and more sinister place today than it was when Hosni Mubarak ran it. Algeria’s Syrian-style civil war never did fully wind down and could mushroom again at any moment. All this is happening in a region so close to Europe that from one point—in and around Tangier in Morocco—you can see Europe.
Tunisia is doing sort of okay, but it’s tiny. Morocco is effectively the only stable place in North Africa. It’s also our only true ally.
Morocco has been allied with the United States for more than 200 years—longer than Canada. Morocco has never done anything bad to America. The United States has never done anything bad to Morocco. It was the first country to recognize our independence from Britain. It sat out the North African Barbary wars, the US Marine Corps' first major foreign engagement. It was a close ally of the United States throughout the Cold War, and it works more closely with Washington against the scourge of Islamist terrorism than any other nation in the Arab world with the possible exception of Jordan. The Bush administration upgraded Morocco to a Major Non-NATO Ally alongside Israel and Japan, and the Obama administration upgraded the alliance yet again with the Strategic Dialogue.
Western Sahara is not America’s most important problem in that region, but it is the most important problem for Morocco, partly because Rabat sees it as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, but also because—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it prevents other states in the region from working together on the kinds of problems that concern the United States and Europe directly.
Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.
It would be a relatively easy problem to wrap up if the United States prioritized it. There is no chance the Moroccans will ever cede territory to a gang of thugs sponsored by Castro, nor is there any chance the Polisario will force out Morocco. Rabat will no sooner “withdraw” from the Sahara than Washington will “withdraw” from Alaska and hand it over to Russia. So there’s no point, really, in pretending that the outcome is open to question. It isn’t.
But Morocco is not asking the United States to resolve it right now. Nor is Morocco asking for money. It’s only asking the United States for technical assistance and training for local government and civil society groups so the Western Sahara can govern itself and to help out with private foreign investment so the Sahrawis can wean themselves off the welfare state that exists now. The United States is good at these things. And it’s the kind of help that doesn’t make American taxpayers groan after pouring so much money into the sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet the State Department refuses to do it even though it has been the policy of the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Congress recently asked State to do it, and it still refused to do anything. So last year Congress passed a law, embedded in the appropriations bill, requiring the State Department do to it, and State is still dragging its feet, despite a joint statement from President Obama and King Mohamed VI last November where they embraced a “shared commitment to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.”
This is partly the fault of the White House. President Obama sent an ambassador there—Minneapolis lawyer and businessman Samuel Kaplan—who had no diplomatic experience and knew nothing of Morocco or Africa. American presidents have been rewarding their friends and backers with ambassador posts for decades. This is no way for a superpower to behave, especially in unstable, dangerous, and bottomlessly complex parts of the world where the US has precious few friends. It screams unseriousness. But at least the White House and the Congress are aware that this is getting ridiculous. The question at this point is, what are they going to do about it?