King Mohammed VI will be making a lightning visit to Washington at the end of next week. He has much to discuss with President Obama and other top officials while he is here. Islamic terrorism, developments in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the Middle East peace process, concerns about Iran, and the situation in the Western Sahara all will be on the king’s agenda.
Morocco is one of America’s longest-standing allies. Ruled by a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed who therefore has no need to prove his Islamic credentials, it is a bastion of moderation—religious, social and political—in an otherwise turbulent region. The king promulgated a constitution in 2011 that allowed Islamists to play a role in the country’s governance, yet, at the same time, protects the status of religious and ethnic minorities, notably Christians and Jews, in a way that virtually no other Arab state does today. Indeed, the strongly royalist daily paper, Le Matin, lists the Jewish, Berber and secular dates on its masthead, in addition to the Muslim day of the week. The Constitution also for the first time recognizes Amazigh, the language of ethnic Berbers, who comprise a significant minority of Morocco’s population. At the same time, there is much more mutual tolerance within the majority of the Muslim community—it is not unusual to see women wearing hejab walking hand-in-hand with women whose heads are completely uncovered.
One might have thought that given its currently miserable reputation throughout most of the Arab world, Washington would be falling over itself to support a valued Arab ally. After all, Morocco is a reliable partner in the war against Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, as well as other radical groups that are ravaging the Sahel. And Morocco’s national-security leadership has made it clear that it is ready to intensify its intelligence cooperation with the United States.
Though it has no official relations with Israel, many of Morocco’s Israeli Jews still are sentimental about the Moroccan monarchy, which protected them for decades. The country has become a favorite tourist spot for Israelis, who often will fill every chair in one of Casablanca’s several kosher restaurants. Moreover, given his role as chairman of the Islamic Conference’s Jerusalem committee, the King is in a position to help Palestinians and Israelis reach a compromise over the status of the Holy City, long one of the stumbling blocks to an overall peace agreement.
Like the other Sunni Arab monarchies, Morocco is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. The king’s close ties with the younger leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as with King Abdullah of Jordan, have rendered him particularly sensitive to the Iranian threat to regional stability. Washington’s readiness to strike a deal with Iran, despite the protestations not only of Israel, but also of France, will surely be a cause for both Moroccan concern and urgent discussions when the king comes to Washington.
Finally, just as the Administration has created the perception that it is “going soft” on Iran, so too it appears to be backing away from its support for Morocco’s position on the sensitive question of the Western Sahara. Secretary of State John Kerry was meant to visit Morocco and Algeria as part of his most recent Middle Eastern swing. In cancelling his visit to Rabat, Kerry also postponed the launching of the annual U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, which would have focused not only on the issues discussed above, but also on America’s treatment of Morocco and Algeria on the Western Sahara question. Whereas in the past Washington was careful not to call into question Morocco’s continued sovereignty over the Western Sahara, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a strong supporter of the Moroccan position, the Obama administration has recently become far more reticent regarding the Moroccan position, instead adopting a supposedly more “even handed” position on the issue.
It should be noted that Algeria has stubbornly refused to cooperate with any multinational counterterrorism effort that includes Morocco. In contrast to Morocco, Algeria has limited its cooperation with other states in the fight against extremism. Indeed, Algiers was barely cooperative with France and other states in the fight to roll back the Malian rebels.
Algeria is governed by a sclerotic leadership that still dates back to the revolutionary war that ended in 1962. And the Algiers gerontocracy shows no sign of any readiness to relinquish its power. It is the same group that led the brutal civil war against Islamists in the early 1990s, which resulted in as many as over tens of thousands of deaths. Moreover, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now 76, who suffered a stroke not long ago, has declared that he will seek a fourth term as Algeria’s president.
In contrast with Morocco, Algeria has been an implacable foe of Israel, and has contributed nothing to the achievement of peace with the Palestinians. Its human rights record is abysmal, but it attempts to deflect attention from its own behavior by asserting that Morocco violates the human rights of the denizens of the Western Sahara.
Algeria has undertaken a major public-relations effort to win over Americans to its position, which calls for an independent Western Sahara that would be governed by the leftist Polisario. Not surprisingly, Algiers has won converts on the American left. And therefore, perhaps, it should come as no surprise either that the Obama administration has begun to shift its position on the Western Sahara issue.
The White House has consistently rejected the chorus of criticism that it takes its allies for granted while it cozies up to America’s enemies. Moroccans clearly feel that they are being taken for granted. It can only be hoped that when King Mohammed VI concludes his brief visit to Washington, will take with him reassurances that America truly values his country’s friendship, and that, in turn, America will not back away from its long standing policy of supporting Rabat’s approach to the question of the Western Sahara’s future as part of the Moroccan state.
Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.
Image: Flickr/Jochen Frey. CC BY 2.0.