Build a future based on empowering individuals, not ideologies (Fmr. Amb. Gabriel)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated exceptional diplomatic skill, political leadership, and vision for the future when she travelled to Morocco Nov. 2-3 to address the 6th annual Forum for the Future meeting of Middle East, North African, and G-8 industrialized nations. She presented a remarkable plan to translate President Barack Obama’s historic New Beginning speech in Cairo into concrete actions that improve relations among nations and bring meaningful change to people’s everyday lives.

Secretary Clinton unveiled a wide range of policy initiatives and appealed for leaders to unite in shaping a future “based on empowering individuals rather than promoting ideologies.” A key to progress, she urged, was “a constructive spirit” to overcome conflicts and recriminations of the past. To that end, Secretary Clinton reiterated US commitment to facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and also singled out the Western Sahara dispute, reaffirming longstanding US policy that supports autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty as the only realistic solution to end the 34-year-old conflict.

It was a masterful presentation, yet it quickly became clear that old ideologies and recriminations die hard. Even before her departure from Morocco, Secretary Clinton was sharply criticized for restating what has been US policy for three successive Administrations.

The Algerian press charged that she wasn’t speaking for the Administration and questioned her relationship with President Obama. The Algerian-backed rebel group Polisario Front accused Secretary Clinton of misstating US policy on the Sahara and over-praising Morocco for its unarguably impressive record of political reforms, social progress, and economic growth over the last decade.

So much for working in a constructive spirit to overcome past conflicts and recriminations.

Secretary Clinton has proven her mettle before in handling tough critics—and likely will again. The misrepresentations of fact and venomous tone of these attacks do a disservice to her, but the larger casualty is the public debate on the Western Sahara. The erroneous claims also undermine the efforts of UN Special Envoy for the Western Sahara Christopher Ross to resume earnest negotiations, which he has been trying to jump-start for almost a year.

I was U.S. Ambassador in Morocco at the time the present U.S. position on the Western Sahara was adopted, and I can confirm Secretary Clinton has her facts straight because I participated in the review process in late 1998-early 1999 that launched the policy during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Current US policy on Western Sahara is that “autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution to the Western Sahara dispute” and should be negotiated “within the UN-led framework.”

Secretary Clinton was right on the mark when she said in Morocco, “This is a plan that originated in the Clinton Administration. It was reaffirmed in the Bush Administration and it remains the policy of the United States in the Obama Administration. I don’t want anyone in the region or elsewhere to have any doubt about our policy, which remains the same.”

The US adopted the policy as the only realistic solution to ending the decades-long stalemate over Western Sahara, which continues to be a roadblock to regional cooperation to grow economies in North Africa, address security concerns including terrorism and trafficking, and create a pillar of stability in an unstable part of the world.

Failure to resolve the conflict also perpetuates the suffering of tens of thousands of refugees trapped for more than three decades in desert camps in Algeria, held hostage by Polisario leaders and a failed ideology willing to sacrifice a people’s future to score political points. That’s shameful.

Equally shameful is the Polisario using Mrs. Aminatou Haidar, a human rights activist and acknowledged advocate of the Polisario and Algeria’s separatist goals for Western Sahara, in what amounts to a publicity stunt this past weekend to draw criticism on Morocco and try to embarrass Secretary Clinton and the US. Upon Mrs. Haidar’s return to southern Morocco from the US, she refused to correctly fill out her customs entry form to match her Moroccan passport. She was refused entry, renounced her Moroccan nationality, returned to the Spanish Canary Islands, and is conducting a hunger strike to protest—what?—Morocco’s enforcement of air travel rules that all passengers must follow?

Thirty-four years is enough. It is long past time to stop the posturing and publicity stunts, and get serious about negotiating a realistic compromise solution to finally end the Western Sahara impasse. Let’s follow the wise advice Secretary Clinton offered to regional leaders at the Forum for the Future: “Build a future based on empowering individuals, rather than promoting ideologies.”

Edward M. Gabriel is former US Ambassador to Morocco (1997-2001) and currently advises the Government of Morocco.