- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The United Nations has reached a critical crossroads in its effort to foster a more stable, secure and prosperous North Africa. However, prospects have not improved following the fourth round of the U.N.-sponsored negotiations to resolve a long-standing dispute over the Western Sahara. Without a more serious effort by the Security Council and its permanent members, including the United States, it is difficult to predict anything other than continued stalemate in this three-decade-old problem which continues to keep tensions in the region high and prevent closer cooperation.

Not only does this dispute continue to threaten the territorial integrity of Morocco, America’s closest ally in the Arab world, but it also inhibits more productive regional cooperation in North Africa where al Qaeda is increasingly profiting from the local instability to secure new and more deadly footholds.

Morocco, upon urging by the United States and others, has embraced the international call for compromise by proposing a sweeping autonomy plan for the region. When this proposal was put forward in April 2007, Washington described it as “serious and credible” and encouraged the disputing parties involved — including Morocco, Algeria and Algeria’s client separatist group, the Polisario Front — to adopt Morocco’s initiative as the basis for negotiating a compromise political solution.

The Moroccan proposal is a solid framework that allows for greater self-determination and local self-governance. As a part of the compromise, Morocco would control the symbolic trappings of national sovereignty as well as the Western Sahara’s borders, national defense and foreign policy. Nearly all other aspects of daily life in the territory would be governed by autonomous, separate and freely elected legislative, executive and judicial authorities.

Allowing locals to exercise broad control over their jurisdiction will provide the foundation for an empowered and peaceful region. The main impediment to achieving this peace is the Polisario’s continued lack of willingness to negotiate and its threats to return to war unless its own already failed solution is imposed by the Security Council.

Algeria insists that the concerned population of the region must have the right of “self-determination.” But this is little more than a ruse to conceal Algeria’s preference for a solution that would dismember one of America’s closest allies in the Arab world and advance Algeria’s own ambitions in the region. Algeria is surely aware that international law, custom and practice recognize the establishment of autonomous regions as a legitimate expression of the principle of self-determination, though it nevertheless continues to speak out as though the only option for independence is credible.

The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has consistently called for a compromise political solution to this problem. Additionally, Congress has expressed strong bipartisan support for the Moroccan initiative in a letter signed by 173 members, including nearly the entire current leadership of both parties.

More than a dozen leading former foreign and defense policy officials and experts — including Madeleine Albright, Frank Carlucci, Tom Daschle, Wesley Clark and Ben Gilman — have also backed the accord. However, the Bush administration has thus far failed to take the fullest advantage of this widespread bipartisan support to call for a firmer Security Council approach to the negotiations.

The Bush administration needs to act with greater resolve to advance an initiative that it has itself promoted as the only reasonable way forward. The United States needs to make clear, both in public and in private, to both Algeria and the Polisario Front that American support for a compromise political solution to the problem in the Sahara is a policy decision endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats, and that now, not later, is the time to embrace a future for the region based on compromise and cooperation, not confrontation and threats of war.

Robert M. Holley is executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy.

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