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Scorched-Earth Diplomacy: Trumpism and Western Sahara-- A Guest Post By Liam O'Mara




-by Liam O’Mara

The closing months of the Trump administration saw a number of diplomatic initiatives hailed by his supporters as foreign policy victories. These include recognition deals between Israel and four different Arab countries and the reduction of troops in several ongoing conflicts. Yet each are more complex and nuanced matters, and none are the clear-cut wins they have been made out to be in right wing media. Not only were the motives suspect-- self-serving political theatre-- but the recognition deals in particular have undermined long-term American (and Israeli) interests, and will cause complications for many years to come.

What we’ve been watching is a kind of scorched-earth diplomacy, with moves made not to improve the standing of the US and aid the cause of people with justice, but instead with the sole aim of ingratiating the president with a loyal base, with no thought given to the intricacies of geopolitics or the long-term strategic interests of this country. Addressing each would consume too many column inches for this piece, so I will focus mostly on the Western Sahara issue, but I will make brief mention of others near the end, and if there is interest I can return to discuss them at length.

For any who missed it, on 10 December the Trump administration tossed out an international consensus dating back to the Ford administration on the status of Western Sahara-- i.e., the former Río de Oro, the larger part of the colony of Spanish Sahara. After giving the northern portion (Cape Juby) back to Morocco in 1958, Spain was unable to solve the problem of controlling the rest-- an issue faced by all the European powers during the decades of anti-colonial struggle. What the Spanish called Río de Oro had been seized from indigenous tribal authorities, as opposed to a national government, though there is some dispute about this, so a brief discussion of the history is in order.


During the high mediaeval Almohad dynasty, Moroccan forces were invited into the northern part of what is now Western Sahara by the local tribes to help quell a rebellion, and stayed present in some towns in the area. During the late mediaeval Marinid dynasty, the Moroccan crown claimed this northern stretch of Western Sahara, but faced rebellions and did not exercise direct control or sovereignty for most of the six centuries of Moroccan involvement. For the most part, there was little more than base affiliation between those tribes and Morocco as a regional patron, not unlike the former status of Tibet as an independent state which recognized China as the dominant power in the area.

As a distinct region with its current borders, Western Sahara did not emerge until a treaty between France and Spain in the early twentieth century. However, as a colony centred closer to the coast, Spanish control came during the Scramble for Africa and the 1884 Berlin Conference. Much of the present dispute hinges on whether Morocco was the sovereign power prior to Spanish colonization. A 1975 International Court of Justice ruling found that there were treaties of allegiance to the crown, but no incorporation and no sovereignty. This is why, to the present day, Western Sahara has been considered a non-sovereign territory whose status must be settled between outside players (former colonial powers Spain and Morocco) and its indigenous population.

The 1975 withdrawal of Spain, having made no formal deal with the indigenous population of the colony, created a power vacuum which was initially filled by three players, two of whom still contest control. Morocco invaded from the north and Mauretania from the south and east, while the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared from within Western Sahara by the Polisario Front, a formerly socialist national liberation movement which now aligns more with social democracy. Mauretania withdrew in 1979 and the issue came up for more discussion in the United Nations, resulting in a 1979 resolution which recognized SADR as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.

The armed struggle between Morocco and the Polisario Front / SADR continued until a 1991 ceasefire, which has occasionally been violated, most recently in a skirmish last month. The situation on the ground has changed a lot since then, with the steady expansion of a series of walls to protect zones under Moroccan occupation, and a steady influx of settlers from Morocco. That government’s active encouragement of settling is one of the bases for its long-running spat with the African Union (AU).

The Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a full member in 1984, which led to Morocco’s exit. It only returned to the African Union in 2017 only after promises to end the wall construction and resolve the conflict with the SADR peacefully. The recent skirmish-- and now Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty-- threatens to re-open a rift with AU member countries, especially with neighbouring Mauretania and Algeria, which back the SADR government in exile.

At issue in the conflict itself is the self-determination of peoples-- a long-standing principle of international law. Memorably enunciated by US president Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference in 1919, it has had a complex history in geopolitics, frequently applied only to the losing side in conflicts and routinely ignored by the powerful. However, it was a major element in the anti-colonial struggles for independence, and remains relevant in the post-Cold War world, cited in numerous unresolved conflicts, from Israel/Palestine to Somalia, Northern Ireland to the Basque Country, Sir Lanka to South Sudan, Artsakh to Catalonia.

The 1991 ceasefire came with the promise of a referendum on full independence for Western Sahara, but this has never taken place. And the presence of large numbers of Moroccan settlers and their descendants now complicates the picture on the ground, in a way very similar to the Israel/Palestine conflict and Northern Ireland. Given the recent hints of further military action, and now the American demonstration of support for Moroccan sovereignty, this referendum is now even less likely to take place. Nearly as many countries recognize the SADR government’s claim as the Moroccan claim, while many other countries, including key US allies, back self-determination and the referendum. Trump’s move risks pushing many to embrace the Polisario Front and SADR.

In addition, France and the US are actively involved in struggles against violent extremists across the Sahel and Sahara regions, and a new military conflict in Western Sahara could-- as in Libya-- increase access to weapons by such groups, and could spiral into another proxy war. In particular, Algeria’s long-term support for the Polisario Front, and hosting of some 100,000+ Sahrawi refugees, could become a flash-point with its powerful western neighbour. If not resolved peacefully, a new fight in Western Sahara could drag Morocco and Algeria back into conflict, undermining all the progress both countries have made on their many internal socioeconomic issues.

So, why was American recognition extended at all? Why abandon such long-standing principles and wade into a complex conflict with the danger of upsetting relations with other allies in global anti-terror struggles and with practically the entire African Union? If the goal of US diplomacy is the preservation of peace and stability in the world, then the status quo, combined with continued pressure to see the referendum take place at last, would be the logical position.

The preservation of peace, however, is not something the outgoing Trump administration has considered much, if at all, in any of its diplomatic activities. As with the other deals made with Arab countries to recognize Israel, little care was given to the way these would inflame other conflicts. The Bahrain deal greatly complicates the internal situation with the Shii majority, and the cold war war between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran. Having both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates sign such deals acts further to isolate Qatar-- itself having long dealt under the table with Israel-- raising the pressure in disputes with its Arab Gulf neighbors. The Sudan recognition risks further destabilizing the already-fractious domestic politics which saw long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir overthrown, given the pro- democracy demands from the popular movements are as yet unmet.

What all of these Israel-recognition deals have in common is their impact on American domestic politics. These were negotiated solely for partisan political gain, and with no regard to the ways they would hamper the American position abroad down the line. Each has been billed as a “historic peace deal with Israel”, despite the fact that none of these countries had been involved in wars with Israel and hence these were not peace deals as such. They are important for Israel, of course, continuing the dissolution of the Arab consensus against recognition, but we are discussing American goals, not Israeli ones. The true objective here was to shore up support for Trump and his brand of politics on the right, both with Evangelical Christians, and among the anti- interventionist “libertarian” wing of the Republican party.

Despite doing nothing to reduce global conflict in four years, both groups frequently cite Trump as a peacemaker who will end all our wars. Recently-announced troop reductions have the same political rationale, as they may force an incoming Biden administration to make the hard choice of completing those withdrawals or increasing the troop commitment to protect the remaining smaller missions, thus playing into Trump’s hands in 2024. In his early years in office Trump greatly increased the body count in several conflicts, and committed an act of aggression against Iran which nearly led to a much larger war, yet excellent brand-management has kept his supporters convinced that he is the anti-war choice. I know people on the left who have made that argument for Trump, which is honestly terrifying.

This deal with Morocco, trading recognition of the annexation of Western Sahara for recognition of Israel, deepens two different long-term settler-colonial conflicts. In the Moroccan case, it gives a green light to continued refusal on the referendum and denial of self determination in the last major colonial struggle on the African continent. And in the Israeli case, it further weakens Arab support for the self-determination of Palestinians, allowing settlement construction in the West Bank to further cement a one-state solution to that conflict which will see Israel in permanent control over a restive population with few civil rights. In the long run, this imperils the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

Both cases-- the West Bank and Western Sahara-- serve further to undermine US claims to stand for freedom and human rights in a world increasingly gripped by right-wing populist revivals and reactionary nativist politics. This latest international move by the Trump administration will diminish hope for a peaceful resolution in either conflict, leaving more innocents in harm’s way. The consequences of Trump’s scorched-earth diplomacy will be with us for a long time.