Weeks before Joe Biden was inaugurated president in January 2021, while serving as assistant secretary for Near East affairs, I traveled to the Western Sahara. A little more than a month earlier, President Trump had recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory and pledged to establish a consulate in the region to encourage Morocco to normalize relations with Israel. A peace agreement was signed that day, but the decision, which reversed longstanding U.S. policy, was nevertheless controversial.
My visit — the first of a senior U.S. government official in nearly four decades — was intended to reinforce and solidify the U.S. commitment prior to the transition.
The highlight of the two-day trip was a tour of a building in the southern town of Dakhla that the Moroccan Foreign Ministry had identified as a potential site for a U.S. consulate. Given State Department bureaucracy, the excursion was necessarily more symbolic than operational — it would take years under the best circumstances to open a U.S. diplomatic facility in such a remote location, and the administration was changing in two weeks. Still, this public reaffirmation of Washington’s consulate promise was important due to concerns the Biden administration might walk back the recognition.
To be sure, Trump’s decision had some downsides. For some, it raised questions of U.S. credibility vis-à-vis the international norm prohibiting the acquisition of territory by force. Others lamented the abandonment of U.S. diplomatic assurances to the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, the representatives of the territory’s indigenous Sahrawi population. Still, the benefits of the Morocco-Israel deal for the parties, the wider region, and for U.S. interests, have been significant. And to date, my office has tracked some 55 states — nearly 30 percent of all countries — that have articulated support for Moroccan rule.
Regrettably, as anticipated, while the Biden administration endorsed the Israel-Morocco peace agreement, it has been ambivalent if not hostile toward the Trump administration’s recognition of sovereignty. Indeed, shortly after the inauguration, the Biden team announced it would conduct a review of U.S. policy on Western Sahara, raising the specter it would rescind the decision. Since then, the administration has neither officially reaffirmed the recognition nor moved to open a consulate. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat continues to feature a Trump-era story on its website about a virtual mission in Dakhla, promising an eventual brick-and-mortar consulate, but that information hasn’t been updated since January 2021.
Over the past two years, the administration has consistently refused to comment on Western Sahara. This vacillation has been reflected not only by omissions in the administration statements but also in the content of State Department documents. The department’s 2022 Report on Human Rights Practices, for example, lists the Western Sahara separately from Morocco and declares that “Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory,” completely disregarding articulated U.S. policy.
No doubt, the administration’s Western Sahara equivocations are at least in part an attempt to mollify Algiers, which was livid with the U.S. recognition. A year into the war in Ukraine, Algerian gas is increasingly critical to U.S. allies in Europe. Likewise, given the growing instability in the Sahel, ongoing U.S.-Algeria counterterrorism cooperation is more important than ever. Not surprisingly, Algiers approves of the Biden team’s approach. Last month, the foreign minister said he was “very much satisfied” with current U.S. policy on Western Sahara.
Unquestionably, Algeria is an important U.S. partner. However, it’s not a reliable ally or major non-NATO partner on the level of Morocco. Rabat buys over 90 percent of its weapons from the U.S. and is strategically monogamous with Washington. Not only does Algiers purchase 80 percent of its weapons from Russia and consistently abjure from condemning Moscow at the United Nations for its invasion of Ukraine, according to Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, China is his state’s “most important friend and partner.” Algeria is also an ardent opponent of Israel’s regional integration.
The Biden administration is clearly irritated with the Western Sahara policy it inherited, but nearly three years on, a reversal of the recognition would be devastating. Not only would it undermine bilateral relations with Morocco, it would exacerbate Washington’s already serious credibility deficit with its other Middle Eastern allies. At a minimum, it would further weaken Riyadh’s confidence in Washington at a time when the kingdom is said to be seeking U.S. security guarantees as a condition for Saudi peace with Israel.
Today, Washington’s commitment to its allies in the Middle East is suspect, and this skepticism is engendering an epidemic of strategic hedging with China, Russia and Iran. In this context, U.S. follow-through on Western Sahara commitments made to one of Washington’s oldest and closest allies is being watched closely.
As the Biden administration contemplates taking on important new security obligations in the region, it is imperative to honor the promises the U.S. has already made.
David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From June 2019 to January 2021, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @davidschenker1.
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