In North Africa, Another Fine Mess Trump Has Left Biden
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The sins of two American presidents, one of commission and the other of omission, are being visited upon relations between Algeria and Morocco, which have plunged to their lowest point in decades. A month after cutting off diplomatic ties with its western neighbor last month, the Algerian government has now closed its air space to Moroccan aircraft.
Restoring the North African nations to their previous positions of manageable mutual distrust may require the U.S. to return to its policy of studied neutrality on an issue they care about deeply: the status of Western Sahara.
First, a little recap of how things came to this sorry pass. Last December, in his final foreign-policy folly, Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s claim to the disputed, mineral-rich region along the Atlantic, in exchange for Rabat’s recognition of Israel. With a single tweet — What else? — the outgoing president upended a decades-old American posture of deliberate detachment, adding to a long list of predicaments he bequeathed to his successor.
It also enraged Algeria, which wants an independent Western Sahara and regards Morocco’s influence in the region as a challenge to its own preeminence in North African affairs. Algiers supports the Polisario Front, a separatist group that claims to represent the Saharawi people who reside across the borders of several countries in the region. Tens of thousands live in refugee camps in Algeria.
Joe Biden could have endorsed his predecessor’s change of policy, or he could have reinstated the preceding status quo, in which the U.S. left the resolution of the dispute to the United Nations, where there is a longstanding consensus that the Saharawis have a right to self-determination.
But Biden has chosen a cop-out: His administration has neither ratified nor rescinded Trump’s decision. Perhaps he is anxious that Rabat would respond to any change of heart in Washington by repealing its own recognition of Israel. Or perhaps he thinks the absence of a formal acknowledgment de facto of the Trump policy leaves the matter de jure in the UN’s hands.
But Morocco and Algeria both see Biden’s ambivalence as an endorsement-by-inaction. Emboldened, Rabat has lashed out at European efforts to enforce the UN’s mandate on Western Sahara. It has also tweaked Algerian noses by stepping up advocacy for the rights of self-determination of the Kabilye, a Berber-speaking minority on the Mediterranean coast. Algeria has accused Morocco of supporting a Kabilye separatist group known as MAK.
Algiers has declared MAK a terrorist organization, one of two groups it blames for the wildfires that claimed more than 90 lives in the northern hills this summer, as well as the murder of an activist.
Rabat’s stance on the Kabilye was one of the “unfriendly, hostile and despicable acts” Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Ramtane Lamamra listed last month as reasons for his government’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Morocco. He also cited Morocco’s relations with Israel.
But if there was any doubt that Western Sahara was at the heart of their dispute, it was removed at the UN General Assembly on Monday, when the Moroccan and Algerian foreign ministers reiterated their positions on the region — and made scant mention of their other disagreements.
By then the UNGA was winding down, and the audience could be forgiven for having wandered off. Hopefully, the Biden administration was paying attention, because the deepening hostility between the two countries augurs ill for North Africa and for U.S. and European interests in the area.
The escalation of the Algerian-Moroccan face-off could not have been more inauspicious. The southern Mediterranean littoral already has more than its share of crises: Democracy is in retreat in Tunisia, and is yet to take root in Libya. Farther south, there have been a string of coups in sub-Saharan Africa, where jihadist groups continue to defy a multinational counterterrorism effort.
Although they are hardly perfect democracies, Algeria and Morocco have relatively predictable governments and their military and intelligence communities play important roles in keeping terrorist groups in check. Algeria is an important source of natural gas for southern Europe, and some of it is transported through Morocco via the Maghreb-Europe pipeline. The Europeans are also counting on Rabat and Algiers to stem the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean.
Can the two countries be brought back from the brink? Their bitterness stems from historical grievances that long predate Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara in the mid-1970s, after Spain withdrew from the region. They will likely remain locked in competition for dominance in North Africa for decades to come. But if they can’t be friends, they have shown themselves capable of maintaining diplomatic relations, a desirable state of affairs for everyone.
Returning them to that state will require the reversal of Trump’s reckless decision of last December; Biden must also reinstate American support for a UN-led solution to the Western Sahara impasse. This will undoubtedly upset the Moroccans, but there is little risk that Rabat, having by now glimpsed the potential benefits of normalized relations with Israel, will withdraw from the Abraham Accords. At the same time, Washington will need to lean on Algiers to allow the UN process to play out, and stop arming and funding Saharawi separatists.
This will not be easy, and the U.S. will need to corral support from European countries that are major trading partners with Morocco and Algeria. The Europeans, having reiterated their support for the UN process, should be eager to help.
Biden might well complain that he has inherited a “panoply” of problems from his predecessor. But leaving them unsolved, as the crisis in North Africa demonstrates, only makes matters worse.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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