Our friends in the desert

Americans like to imagine that most conflicts are waged by good guys against bad guys and respond to trigger words to decide who falls into which camp. Linking one’s opponents to terrorism, Osama bin Laden or Muslim extremism is a sure way to win the sympathy and support of many who remain unwilling or unable to look beyond the complexities of a high-school football game.

Nations and people seeking a sympathetic hearing have always known this about Americans and acted accordingly to make sure that what we know about those they dislike comes with the slant they seek. Thus, the first thing the British did to get an edge on their enemies in the summer of 1914, as war in Europe threatened, was to cut the trans-Atlantic cable between the U.S. and continental Europe, guaranteeing that our news would have to flow through London.

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A less-than-accurate narrative is saleable as long as those to whom it is sold don’t discover that it is little more than fiction.

Controlling the narrative becomes even more important when few Americans are familiar with the facts. This has certainly been true of a struggle that’s been going on in the North African desert since the mid-’70s.

Until then the colonial Western Sahara was a part of what was known as the Spanish Sahara; the Spanish abandoned the territory, which was immediately invaded, occupied and annexed by Morocco.

The several hundred thousand inhabitants waged a guerrilla war against the Moroccan king’s vastly superior army, which had the backing of most of the Arab world and the former colonial powers. The independence-minded Sahrawi, as they were known, were bombed, napalmed and eventually driven across the border into neighboring Algeria, where several hundred thousand still live in U.N.-administered refugee camps.

Led by Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Sahrawi realized they couldn’t win a shooting war with the Moroccans and instead sought help from the United Nations and the World Court.

The World Court found that their claim to the lands seized by Morocco were legitimate, and the U.N. sided with the Sahrawi’s demand for a referendum on whether they the people living on the land preferred independence or Moroccan rule. The Moroccan king essentially told the U.N., the World Court and the Sahrawi to pound sand.

Still, Abdelaziz believed that right would eventually prevail and began preparing his people for self-government. As a result, the refugees living in the camps — which I have visited and in which my daughter served as a volunteer a few years ago — are well-educated and live under a written constitution almost unique among Muslim nations in that it guarantees residents the vote and provides equal rights for women. The inhabitants also tend to be strongly pro-American.

Abdelaziz and his followers have won the support of many U.S. Christian churches that supplement the dwindling supplies from the U.N. with food and other staples. Their plight has been generally ignored in the U.S., but they do enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, with Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe as perhaps their principal Republican champion.

At first the Moroccans simply ignored world opinion but eventually agreed to a referendum as long as the Moroccans who had moved or been moved into the area since the ’70s could participate.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker accepted a U.N. appointment as a special negotiator to come up with a plan for the referendum. The Baker Plan was rejected out of hand in 2003 by the king, who began spending millions to convince the world that the Western Saharans are little more than al Qaeda wannabes and arguing that most Sahrawi want to live under Morocco’s enlightened rule.

That myth died along with a number of protesters and Moroccan security officials last month when Moroccan forces broke up a peaceful encampment of Western Saharans inside Moroccan-occupied territory, arrested hundreds and moved to cut off communications and press access to the area.

As the protest began, the Sahrawi feared just such a reaction and asked the U.N. for protection. On Oct. 18, a spokesman for the Moroccan government told Reuters that there was no need for such protection because “Morocco tolerates protests … and [there] will not be police intervention against those protesters.”

Three weeks later, with guns blazing, the intervention became a reality and the narrative collapsed.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.