Biden’s Cop-Out On Morocco Serves No Purpose

Half measures typically don’t please anyone, much less secure the benefits that come with a clear choice. That certainly applies to the Biden administration's refusal to take a straightforward position on Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.

Last December, President Donald Trump announced — on Twitter, naturally — the end of half a century of American opposition to recognizing Rabat’s claim to the vast, mineral-rich region along the Atlantic coast. Since Trump was nearly out the door at the time, the Moroccans welcomed the announcement with a degree of caution: They were not sure what the next occupant of the White House would do.

According to both news reports and senior diplomats from the region, the Biden administration is declining to take a decision either way — neither endorsing Trump’s decision nor doing anything to rescind it. In effect, it is kicking the can down the road.

The Moroccans are relieved that their big gain under Trump hasn't been revoked. But they have not forgotten U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s January 27 comment that the administration was “trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those [Arab normalization] agreements” with Israel. Trump’s Western Sahara announcement was a quid pro quo in exchange for Rabat’s diplomatic opening with Israel.

Blinken has sent mixed signals. The State Department’s annual human-rights report, released in March, did not include the traditional Western Sahara section. The department’s maps depict the region as part of an expanded Morocco.

But last month, Blinken urged the United Nations to appoint a special envoy for Western Sahara and called for negotiations between the Moroccan government and independence-seeking Sahrawis. This suggests the matter is not settled.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara after Spain withdrew in 1975. Since then, Sahrawi resistance has been led mainly by the Polisario Front, an armed group supported by neighboring Algeria. American and international opposition to Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara stems from the United Nations charter prohibiting the acquisition of territory by war. Trump’s priority, however, was an Israeli-Moroccan diplomatic breakthrough.

Ironically, there are plenty of parallels between Moroccan rule of Western Sahara and Israel’s control of the Palestinian territories seized in 1967. Like Israel, Morocco has systematically transformed the demographics of the area, but even more thoroughly than in the West Bank. By some estimates, Moroccan settlers make up more than half of the 500,000 people living in Western Sahara. The UN and much of the international community consider both to be foreign military occupations.

But Trump never cared for such niceties. He was keen to promote normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, recognizing this as one of his very few foreign policy successes. After diplomatic successes with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, his attention turned to Morocco.

But Rabat was clear that the price would be U.S. recognition of its sovereignty in Western Sahara. Trump saw no problem with this. After all, he had already endorsed Israel’s claims on the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, and a proposal to annex to about 30% of the West Bank. In exchange, the Moroccans agreed to reopen a liaison offices with Israel that were closed amid the violence of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.

But Rabat is unlikely to accept full relations until is certain the Trump position won’t be rescinded by the new Democratic administration. The current ambivalence in Washington won’t help move the needle.

Biden in a bind. His administration and most Democrats strongly support the Arab-Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs, and would like to expand them further. But at the same time, the president claims to be championing a return to the “international, rules-based order” that Trump all but abandoned by backing the Israeli and Moroccan annexations.

A fundamental tenet of that order is that countries can't simply grab land as they see fit. To cast that rule aside is to embrace the law of the jungle in relations between the states. Among other things, it leaves Washington with no argument against Russia’s efforts to take over parts of Ukraine.

It’s hard to see any benefit in Biden's timid ambiguity. Had he endorsed Trump’s position, it might have persuaded Morocco to move quickly towards full relations with Israel — and the White House might have been able to argue that closer ties between two American partners is a good thing.

The wiser choice would be to rescind Trump’s decision on Western Sahara and restore U.S. support for the most basic of international laws. He might not do the same for East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, for fear of a powerful array of pro-Israel constituencies — but the fewer exceptions to the “rules-based order,” the better.

Instead, Biden has opted for a cop-out that serves nobody’s interests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.