Photo: Tank in Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara, Photo Credit: Nick Brooks
An incredible document detailing the United States involvement in ongoing disputes over the Western Sahara has been declassified and made public by the State Department. The document outlines several key historical moments in U.S. policy towards the Western Sahara and reveals a number of heretofore classified agreements and developments between the United States and Morocco.
The document, titled Sahara Policy History, was released May 5, 2017 and appears to be written by former Moroccan Ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar. The seven-page document was submitted to the State Department in the Fall of 2009, prior to a visit to Morocco by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW FROM PUBLIC SOURCES
Some of the information contained in the Sahara Policy History document has been published before, but never in a document declassified and released by the United States. What was already released to the public is explained in the following U.S. policy timeline and document excerpts.
[Page 1, Introduction] “The present state of play on this issue is a direct result of an American initiative in 1999 to change course on how best to resolve the problem. The abandonment of the referendum option has been an American policy initiative, not a Moroccan one, and it took a very difficult internal political debate for Morocco to follow the ‘American request’ to propose an autonomy for the Sahara.”
U.S. State Department starts formal interagency review of current policy on Western Sahara
From 1991 to 1998 the U.S. policy on Western Sahara supported efforts of MINURSO (UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) to complete a voter registration process that was necessary to hold a referendum that would decide if the territory would be fully integrated into Morocco or become an independent state. By 1998, it became clear that Morocco and the Polisario Front could not come to an agreement on who should be allowed to vote and the registration process reached an impasse. As a result, the U.S. State Department undertook a formal interagency review of the policy.
[Page 2, Paragraph 4] “In view of these difficulties and tensions in bilateral relations (arising from differences on the Sahara question), seeing that the current (1998) US approach was neither sustainable, manageable or helpful in fostering closer bilateral relations, in December 1998 the State Department undertook a formal interagency review of the policy that included the US Ambassador in Rabat, Edward Gabriel and political counselor, Bob Holley. This review continued into January of 1999.”
Review concludes referendum no longer in U.S. interest, sets a new proposal
The review concluded that the referendum option was no longer in the interest of the United States and accepted a new proposal that would continue Moroccan sovereignty in the Sahara while granting autonomy for the territory.
[Page 2, Paragraph 6] “The review accepted the proposal that a formal decision to pursue a compromise, negotiated, political solution to the problem, based on continued Moroccan sovereignty in the Sahara, but with the granting of a broad and substantial (by international standards) autonomy for the territory”.
Paragraph 7 of the document acknowledges that a formal decision was taken by Secretary Albright, who approved the staff recommendation in February, 1999.
Morocco agrees to the American proposal
[Page 3, Paragraph 10] “On July 19, 1999 with his advisers, and on July 20th, in a meeting with Ambassador Gabriel, King Hassan II indicated his desire to agree to the ‘American position’ and pursue a ‘political solution’ to the Sahara crisis.”
King Hassan would die three days later. His successor, King Mohammed VI, was briefed on his father’s meeting with Ambassador Gabriel.
[Page 3, Paragraph 11] “[King Mohammed] came to an agreement in principle proposed by Secretary Albright in a meeting with her on September 1, 1999, in Rabat.”
The authors of this article were intimately involved in the actions presented in these statements, and can attest to their truthfulness and accuracy. We can also attest to another fact presented in paragraph 12 which states that, “a detailed American proposal that addressed both Moroccan and US concerns was presented to King Mohammed VI shortly thereafter, in mid-September 1999 in Tangier.” [Page 3, Paragraph 12]
WHAT IS NEW TO THE PUBLIC
Much of the rest of the State Department document has also been reported in other publications, except for the following new statements that have now been declassified by the State Department.
U.S. guarantees Morocco it would support its sovereignty in the Sahara
Paragraph 12 of the document further reveals what was secret until this release: certain U.S. commitments on the agreement between the U.S. and Morocco.
[Page 3-4, Paragraph 12] “The US proposal involved a sovereignty/autonomy framework…There were two conditions from Morocco that were also met (by the US). First, although the US could not guarantee the outcome of any final solution, the United States guaranteed Morocco that it would not support any outcome of a negotiation that did not guarantee Morocco’s sovereignty in the Sahara. Second, the United States would work actively to ensure that there would not be a renewal of hostilities in the region over this issue.”
Although the authors of this article were well aware of this commitment to Morocco, this is the first time we have seen it made public.
Former Secretary of State Jim Baker offers new peace plan detrimental to Morocco
In August of 2003, former Secretary of State Baker, then the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara, offered a new peace plan detrimental to Morocco, which it rejected.
[Page 5, Paragraph 17] “[Baker] strongly urged Morocco to accept (his) agreement” or “the United States should move this issue from Chapter VI to Chapter VII under the UN Charter.”
In other words, the UN would seek to compel Morocco to accept Baker’s terms on pain of potential UN sanctions.
President Bush says Baker does not represent the U.S. position
A month later, on the margins of the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President George W. Bush met with King Mohammed VI to affirm U.S. commitment to previous framework.
[Page 5, Paragraph 20] “President Bush made it clear that Baker did not represent the United States and that only officials of the United States Government spoke for the United States… (he) assured the King the United States remained committed to the agreement that had been struck with the Clinton Administration and reaffirmed that the US would never support anything that would not be accepted by Morocco.”
U.S. officials advise Morocco to develop its own proposal for Sahara's autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty
[Page 6, Paragraph 23] “Morocco was again advised by US officials (on several occasions) to move the process forward by developing its own proposal for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty… (and stated) if Morocco could produce a credible plan for a wide autonomy for the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty and would accept to negotiate with the Polisario, the US would then state publically that autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty was the only viable solution for the Sahara.”
[Page 6, Paragraph 26] “The USG, as promised, also endorsed a public statement, at the United Nations, as well as in official (private) communications between the President and King Mohammed VI that ‘Independence was not a realistic option and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan Sovereignty is the only feasible solution’.”
While the U.S. government has not affirmed the facts presented by the Moroccan Ambassador in this now public document, it is obvious from our participation in the developments at the time, as well as our intimate knowledge of the events described, that this document is factually correct.
The document outlines a firm U.S. position on the issue of the Western Sahara over the past twenty years, which is to support an internationally acceptable form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. It’s shocking that no US official would stand up and say it’s about time we live up to our commitments, made time and again to Morocco!
In reviewing this article, the State Department permitted its publishing with the following statement: “The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.”
Edward M. Gabriel was U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001. Robert M. Holley is a former Foreign Service diplomat with the Department of State.
Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and currently President of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He has an extensive background in international affairs, having convened multilateral policy forums involving national security, environmental, and trade and energy issues.