Outside View: Elliot Abrams' Maghreb plot

By CLAYTON E. SWISHER, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   April 13, 2007 at 5:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 13 (UPI) -- As the debris from bombings by the newly formed al-Qaida in Maghreb offshoot in the heart of the Algerian capital still smolders, another attack is looming in the diplomatic front.

Elliot Abrams, the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, is again sowing the seeds of conflict in the Middle East. This time it's in the disputed Western Sahara, under Moroccan control following the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975.

After being marginalized from the Arab-Israeli arena, now under the almost exclusive domain of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her State Department, Abrams is pulling free the grenade pin that may shortly cause North Africa to explode.

He is on the verge of achieving a major U.S. policy shift that would have Washington backing Morocco's unilateral imposition of its so-called Western Sahara Initiative, or autonomy plan upon the indigenous Sahrawi people of Western Sahara.

U.S. officials distracted by other pressing regional conflagrations first viewed Abrams' Maghreb meddling as a small price to be paid for getting him out of the Arab-Israeli domain. They barely paid attention as Abrams tinkered with a new Western Sahara strategy, an embryonic idea raised by outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton (who threatened to do away with the Western Sahara peacekeeping mission, which turned costly over time in the absence of a successful settlement).

Largely indifferent U.S. government bureaucrats were jarred awake this week with the terrorist bombings in Algeria. State and government counter-terrorism officials began immediately scrutinizing Abrams' new Western Sahara strategy out of fear that the perception the United States was siding with Morocco would upend the U.S.-Algerian Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative and undermine closer cooperation in the energy sector. At a time when al-Qaida's presence in Algeria exponentially grows and Algerian jihadis flock to Iraq, the U.S. government needs Algeria more than it needs to curry favor with Rabat.

Algeria has long given political, financial and military support to the Sahrawi inhabitants of Western Sahara, represented by the nationalistic Polisario Front. A majority of the supporters of Polisario live in Tindouf, a squalid refugee camp on the Algerian side of the border. The possibility of a new U.S. tilt toward Morocco, one that risks undermining a fragile cease-fire held in place by U.N. peacekeepers since 1991, will only add volatility to an already destabilized region. Indeed, the issue of Western Sahara strikes raw nerves of mutual enmity between both Moroccans and Algerians, fanning the embers of nationalism for each.

Worse, this provocative change in U.S. position would further isolate the United States from the international community (aside from France and Spain, the stake-holding, post-colonial holdouts). Additionally, some U.N. members back the International Court of Justice's 1975 holding that sovereignty for Western Sahara must be determined through a referendum in which all the inhabitants of Western Sahara would vote. The new Abrams policy favoring Morocco will also be a break from traditional U.S. positions expressed at the United Nations (involved U.N. staff in New York are perplexed), as well as the previous efforts by former U.N. envoy for Western Sahara James A. Baker, co-author of another document disregarded by Abrams: the Baker-Hamilton Report.

A communiqué was released April 10 by the office of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns that praised the Western Sahara Initiative, a four-page document formally presented on April 11 by a visiting Moroccan delegation at the United Nations.

Using terminology almost from the neoconservative Abrams lexicon, the communiqué hailed Morocco's WSI as "a serious and credible proposal to provide real autonomy for Western Sahara" adding that the Algerian-backed Polisario should engage with Morocco "in direct negotiations, without preconditions" and that the United States "welcomes all efforts to find a realistic and workable solution to this longstanding dispute."

Although the statement stops short of endorsing autonomy for Western Sahara as the best option for a comprehensive settlement, diluting the rights of the Sahrawi people under international law by urging "realistic" and "workable" outcomes through fait accompli positions is precisely the tactic employed by Abrams against Palestinians, best evidenced in the letters he helped author between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon back in April 2004. ("In light of new realities on the ground ... it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines.")

But why favor Morocco? For starters, Abrams is especially close to its leaders, something that matters in a region where he is sorely disliked. Morocco is further deemed by many in the U.S. government, now viewing the region in terms of "moderates" versus "extremists," to be firmly rooted in the so-called moderate camp and a model of democratic change.

Morocco is one of the few Arab countries that have close relations with Israel (the late King Hassan II of Morocco was among the first to establish covert relations with Israel; he ultimately helped deliver the Egyptians to Camp David in 1978). Morocco also has a vast intelligence-sharing program with the Israelis. It has hosted several Israeli officials, even during the peak of violence during the second intifada. Nevertheless, the Moroccan monarchy still keeps its custodial title as the "Islamic World's Keeper of Jerusalem" through the Organization of Islamic Countries.

The operative basis for the WSI -- using autonomy as a starting point for negotiations rather than the end result of a peace process -- falls short of the perennial demands of the pro-independence Polisario Front for a self-determination referendum. U.S. government officials felt a small victory in at least getting Abrams to back off an outright U.S. backing of the Moroccan WSI.

The U.S. policy pushed forward by Abrams is to endorse unconditional negotiations between Moroccans and the Polisario with the WSI as the basis -- something the Polisario had earlier rejected. The United States will give the Polisario a period of 60 days during which time they will have to begin negotiations with the WSI as a basis for talks. Barring that, the United States will then move to back the Moroccans and their unilateral imposition of the WSI and back Morocco in all international fora (although getting the U.N. Security Council to approve Morocco's annexation will be an uphill battle in that some members are supportive of the Polisario's struggle, while others in the Arab world and Europe side with Morocco).

Do we really need Abrams and the Bush administration to upend another status quo? Don't bulls in China shops ever give it a rest?

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(Clayton E. Swisher is director of programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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