Biden Can Backtrack on Trump’s Move in Western Sahara

Labeling the Polisario Front a separatist insurgency rather than anti-occupation movement sets a dangerous precedent. But there’s also no strategic reason Biden can’t back away from Trump’s brash turn on day one.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

A protester waves the Sahrawi flag in front of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid on Dec. 10, 2020.
A protester waves the Sahrawi flag in front of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid on Dec. 10, 2020. Diego Radames/SOPA Images/LightRocket

On Dec. 10, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump announced via tweet that the United States now recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a reversal of nearly half a century of diplomatic norms pursued in return for Morocco’s normalization of ties with Israel. The enormity of this apparent change in policy cannot be overstated; it appears that Morocco’s long-running diplomatic pressure campaign has finally borne fruit. Still, there is good reason to consider the permanence of this about-face with some suspicion. Trump’s move sets a highly problematic precedent by recognizing the sovereignty of an occupying power—Morocco—over a colonized territory—Western Sahara. But the highly symbolic nature of the decision also makes it a prime candidate for foreign-policy damage control when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

There are three reasons why the United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is a peculiar policy reversal. First, it is striking that the most substantial change in U.S. posture towards the territory conflict should has been pursued not for its own sake, but as a price paid to persuade the Kingdom of Morocco to agree to normalize relations with Israel.

Second, the decision comes as Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi liberation movement, are engaged in active armed conflict. This is a recent change: A 29-year-old cease-fire agreement between the two groups—which promised a democratic resolution to the conflict—collapsed in November 2020 after protests escalated to an exchange of fire. The Moroccan military responded to demonstrations blocking a road near the Mauritanian border by breaching the buffer zone between the two territories and exchanging fire with the Polisario as they evacuated civilians. Then, on Nov. 14, 2020, the Polisario’s leadership announced that the group would no longer adhere to the 1991 truce and initiated a return to armed struggle. While the November protests were the proximate cause of this breakdown, other factors—including the proliferation of Moroccan drones in Western Sahara and decades of failed diplomacy—have been brewing discontent among the Sahrawi people for years.

Third, and most importantly, the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara is illegal—a verdict long affirmed by the United Nations and many international court decisions. The United Nations considers Western Sahara to be a non-self-governing territory, rendering the celebrated 1975 “Green March”—when 300,000 Moroccan civilians settled in the territory—a deliberate act of colonization. This means that Sahrawi self-determination activists—and the Polisario Front—are not “separatists,” as both the Washington Post and New York Times have reported, but a decolonization movement. This distinction is critically important in determining what changes the United States can effect unilaterally in Western Sahara—and what their implications are for other conflicts.

The international legal record on Western Sahara has been clear and consistent. In 1975, the International Court of Justice issued an opinion on the matter at Morocco’s own request. It stated that the future of the territory should be decided “through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory.” In 1982, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the government formed by the Polisario, became a founding member of the African Union’s predecessor organization, the Organization for African Unity. One of the union’s founding principles is that there can be no revision of colonial borders on the African continent; Morocco’s claims cut cleanly against this rule.

The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly tried to oversee a popular referendum in Western Sahara to resolve the conflict, as promised by the 1991 cease-fire. But those efforts have brought little to the fore. The 2003 Peace Plan, doggedly pursued by then-U.N. Special Envoy and former U.S. Secretary State James Baker, gave into significant Moroccan demands—the biggest of which was the inclusion of all Moroccan settlers as eligible voters in the referendum. This plan won the support not only of the United States, France, and their peers on the U.N. Security Council, but also Algeria, the SADR leadership the Polisario Front, and Mauritania. It was Morocco alone that refused to accept the new terms of the referendum, instead introducing an entirely separate “autonomy plan” that would grant some rights to Western Sahara but preserve Moroccan authority over defense and foreign affairs. Morocco’s proposal would also fail to protect the locally elected government from abolition by the central government. Collectively, these restrictions fall far short of the legal definition of autonomy.

The failure of the 2003 proposal was reason enough for Baker to risk his position as special envoy and push for U.N. Chapter VII sanctions to move the peace process along. He then resigned in exasperation when the United States and U.N. Security Council refused to support pressuring Morocco in this manner. Baker’s experience is a case in point of Rabat’s general approach to avoiding the hot seat: Moroccan leaders have correctly surmised that third-party states eager to preserve the status quo will never force its hand, instead erring on the side of maintaining “neutrality.” This aversion to provocation has meant overlooking Morocco’s activities in the region and voicing support for U.N. talks that repeatedly go nowhere, all while repeating the hollow phrase that Morocco’s autonomy plan is “serious, credible, and realistic”—verbatim descriptions issued by the Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations as well as the French government.

Trump, and Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush, are not necessarily wrong about an autonomy plan. In theory, such a plan may very well be “serious, credible, and realistic.” Spain and Iraq have used autonomy plans to maintain relative stability in Catalonia and the Kurdistan region, respectively. Autonomy plans, particularly those that espouse peaceful referendums, have always been a sound arrangement for dealing with separatism or self-determination claims. So it is not Morocco’s autonomy plan in and of itself that sets a problematic precedent.

For the United States to uncritically take the side of an occupation demonstrates that U.S. foreign-policy now favors power over law and unilateral action over cooperation.

What is dangerous, though, is the implication of the proposed autonomy plan: that Western Sahara is home to a separatist movement that must be quelled. But there’s no separatist movement in Western Sahara, only an anticolonial one. This is not some far-fetched ideological characterization, but the official position of the United Nations. As a result, unilateral implementation of Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan—which forfeits the long-promised democratic referendum—would make the future of Western Sahara look more like a colonial mandate and less like true autonomy. Even a “good” solution established through undemocratic means and against international law sets a harmful precedent.

For the United States to uncritically take the side of an occupation—as a bargaining chip in tangential negotiations, and during active armed conflict, no less—demonstrates that U.S. foreign-policy now favors power over law and unilateral action over cooperation. If Morocco can normalize its status in the territory, why not the Russian government in Crimea? Why shouldn’t the Turkish government invest heavily in integrating Northern Cyprus, as some in the territory now desire? And, in Israel—a benefactor of the U.S. decision—why not formally annex the West Bank? The legal parallels are many, and they point to a growing international toleration of territorial expansion.

Aside from a dangerous rupture in norms, it is worth exploring what U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara actually changes on the ground. Morocco has indeed secured a substantial diplomatic victory, and the United States has freed itself to sell drones to the Moroccan military for use in the ongoing conflict with the Polisario. Prior to Trump’s maneuver, U.S. arms sales to Morocco have come with provisions specifying that they cannot to be used in Western Sahara—which was, until recently, considered a non-self-governing occupied territory. Now, Trump has cleared the way for the United States to directly arm and enable an occupying power—and, by extension, a brutal occupation.

Rescinding Trump’s move is a low-hanging fruit if the incoming Biden administration wants to signal its commitment to international law and multilateral cooperation. It would be practically costless for the United States to withdraw recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara; it can be done with the stroke of a pen. And Morocco had been making multi-billion dollar arms deals with Washington since well before its latest embrace of Rabat.

It would be practically costless for the United States to withdraw recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

In theory, the Moroccan government could respond to a U.S. reversal by revoking its new diplomatic ties with Israel, but it would pay a bigger price for such a move than would the United States. Although only a small minority of Moroccans (four percent) support normalized relations with Israel, the half million Moroccan Jews living in Israel have long sustained ties with their country of origin. Morocco and Israel have also enjoyed covert trade relations for decades. Now, Morocco’s formalization of diplomatic ties with Israel will allow air travel between the two countries—an economic boon for Rabat. To jeopardize these valuable assets only to punish the Biden administration for returning to neutrality in its conflict with the Polisario is an unlikely move on the part of the Moroccan government.

Although U.S. plans for a consulate in occupied Western Sahara are already underway, a reversal would not without precedent—particularly this early in the outlining process. Strangely enough, withdrawals of recognition have been a ever-present feature of the conflict in Western Sahara. As of 1990, the SADR had garnered the recognition of over 80 countries. Today, that number has dwindled to about 40, largely as a result of a legally compelling argument that the Moroccan government has pushed since 1991: Countries cannot both support the U.N. referendum and take a position on the outcome of that referendum. Now, that same argument applies to the new U.S. policy in Western Sahara: Washington cannot both support the U.N.’s role in resolving the conflict and endorse Moroccan sovereignty. The Biden administration has an opportunity to recognize this harmful contradiction and reassert the United States’ commitment to international leadership premised on law and cooperation—rather than sheer power—as the governing principle by which to resolve international disputes.

A decade ago, Jacob Mundy and Anna Theofilopoulou argued that the U.N. would not resolve the Western Sahara problem until it becomes a crisis. Consider the moment we are in: Last November, a 29-year-old ceasefire agreement collapsed in the territory, with each side claiming the other was responsible for its dissolution. According to Sahrawi sources, landmines are again being planted in the disputed ground, and skirmishes in the territory continue to escalate.

Now, a norm-breaking U.S. president with a few weeks left in office has volunteered to be the first major power to recognize the Moroccan occupation—and it has not been done to resolve this newly hot conflict, but as a bargaining chip dealt in service of U.S. policy towards Israel. This chip never needed to be on the table. According to Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, Trump “could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people”—for example, by investing in tourism, banking, and renewable energy projects. Democratic Senator Patrick Lahey and Rep. Betty McCollum have also denounced Trump’s move as a betrayal of a long-standing U.S. commitment to respecting the right to self-determination enshrined in international law.

The present moment is a crisis. It is also an opportunity—for the United States and for the United Nations. A Biden administration committed to anti-colonial justice and to international cooperation as the pathway to conflict resolution could seize this opportunity to empower the U.N. Security Council to at last implement the referendum that will resolve the conflict once and for all. Such a move already has clear bipartisan support, even amidst the strong currents of polarized American politics. Absent such a policy reversal, the United States will instead find itself exporting weapons of war to directly enable an illegal occupation and escalate conflict in North Africa.

R. Joseph Huddleston is an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. He is writing a book on diplomacy by self-determination movements. Twitter: @joeyhuddleston

Harshana Ghoorhoo is a research assistant at the Diplomacy Lab in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. Twitter: @HGhoorhoo

Daniela A. Maquera Sardon is a research assistant at the Diplomacy Lab in the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. Twitter: @MaqueraSardon

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola