Voice

'The Worst of the Worst'

A U.S. ally is treating a would-be nation as a prison camp -- and we're doing nothing about it.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, descendant of the Prophet, Commander of the Faithful, arrived in Washington this week for his first meeting with President Barack Obama. One does not lightly perturb such a personage -- and there is no reason to think that President Obama will do so. Morocco is one of the most steadfast allies the United States has in the Middle East, as well as a silent partner of Israel. The Moroccans feel under-appreciated; the president is eager to show that he cares about his friends, not just about bad actors like Iran. This will be a comity-fest.

But there will be a ghost at the banquet -- the very famished and battered ghost that is Western Sahara. Morocco claims this barren wedge of desert, from which Spain, the long-time colonial master, withdrew in 1975. A civil war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represented the Sahrawi people, ended in 1991 when the United Nations brokered an agreement by which the people of the region would be permitted to choose either independence or autonomy. That referendum has never been held, and Morocco intends never to hold it. What's more, Moroccan security officers beat up the Sahrawis whenever they have the temerity to demand their rights. And the Obama administration doesn't know what to do about it.

What is confounding about Western Sahara is not the question of where justice lies. The Security Council endorsed the referendum plan and established a mission, called Minurso, in order to put it into effect. Morocco stalled for years, and in 2003, James Baker, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy, came up with yet another plan which gave the Moroccans a much better chance of winning the referendum. The Security Council endorsed that plan as well, but Morocco flatly refused to stage a vote for independence, even one it might win.

This rank colonial injustice by a former victim of colonialism is reminiscent of Indonesia's repression of East Timor, save that in 1999 the Indonesians allowed a referendum on independence to go forward -- and then unleashed its thugs when it became clear the vote was going the wrong way. There is every reason to believe that Morocco would commit similar atrocities rather than surrender the region. But it's not about to make the Indonesian mistake. King Mohammed and his father before him, Hassan II, have always treated Western Sahara as a matter of national integrity. When I was in Morocco in 2012, I could barely find anyone, including harsh critics of the regime, who believed that the Sahrawis had been deprived of their rights, much less their independence. The king is thus free to do as he wishes. Both the United States and France have consistently supported Casablanca even while paying lip service to the U.N. process.

Thanks to Moroccan intransigence, the debate has shifted over time. In 2007, the Security Council called on the two sides to reach a solution through negotiation. A dozen meetings since then have produced nothing; both parties simply re-state their position, at which point one of them often walks out. This, in turn, has produced a further shift: The Polisario Front, despairing of progress, has tried to call world attention to Morocco's brutal treatment of the Sahrawis. Demonstrations are suppressed with brutal force; Moroccan and Sahrawi journalists know that they risk prison if they even raise the issue of independence. Freedom House has called the human rights situation in Western Sahara "the worst of the worst."

And this is where the Obama administration enters the story. The Polisario Front and its many supporters, both among African states and humanitarian organizations, have sought in recent years to add human rights monitoring to Minurso's mandate. This past April they persuaded Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to do just that. Morocco responded as if it had been stabbed in the back. First a joint military exercise with the United States was abruptly cancelled. Then the king called Obama to bitterly complain of meddling in his country's affairs. Obama overruled his envoy, and Minurso's mandate was renewed without a human rights component. And yet Morocco had been put on notice that the United States would no longer blithely accept its contempt for the rights of the Sahrawis. Or had it?

Rice is now national security advisor, but there is no sign that the United States is prepared even to ruffle Morocco's feathers. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a lobbyist for Independent Diplomat, a non-profit that provides diplomatic guidance to the Polisario Front, among others, says that what the Obama administration learned from the incident this past April was, "We need Morocco more than they need us. We need them to be happy and on board." Sedaca says that human rights will not be part of the president's discussion with King Mohammed. That may not be technically correct; I got the impression from a conversation with an administration official that Obama may urge the king to strengthen the "capacity" of his own human rights bodies, which is the kind of painless request one makes of autocratic allies.

There are several reasons for this strategic reticence: Morocco is a tranquil place at a time when the Arab world is having a nervous breakdown; Morocco has not offered so much as a foothold to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has spread across North Africa. The Obama administration, intent on building a transnational response to the transnational threat of terrorism, certainly needs Morocco more than it used to, if not more than Morocco needs the United States. A letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco put the matter bluntly, asserting that the United States should openly side with Casablanca's "common sense" solution on Western Sahara "so that the international community can move on to more urgently needed solutions to the more pressing problems in the region." The letter doesn't even mention the Sahrawis. Why should it? They don't matter.

And yet there is a serious argument that, as a matter of national self-interest, Morocco needs to stop treating Western Sahara as a prison camp: Autonomy can not be a lasting solution unless it is attractive. Otherwise, Morocco will have a sullen populace, and perhaps at least a low-grade rebellion, on its hands for the foreseeable future. Attractive autonomy might even work. William Lawrence, a North African expert at George Washington University, says that Sahrawi civil society does not march in lockstep under the Polisario banner. "The bigger agenda is not independence or not, it's good governance or not, it's human rights or not, it's social and economic and political progress or not."

No one knows for sure if that's true, since even talking about independence is a crime. What is clear though, is that, on the one hand, the king won't permit a vote on independence, and, on the other, rubbing people's nose in the hopelessness of their own situation is an excellent way of encouraging rebellion. And with AQIM wandering around the Sahara, rebellions can be a lot more dangerous than they used to be. Ergo, Morocco needs to find a policy in between letting Western Sahara vote for independence -- even though it should -- and cracking skulls.

The Sahrawis want the same thing that publics want all over the Arab world -- personal dignity, economic opportunity, accountable government. The turmoil that now wracks the Middle East is not going to subside unless and until states figure out how to furnish those fundamental human goods. Morocco is no exception, even if the widespread reverence for the king protects him from public anger. The White House needs to find a way to signal its support for this staunch friend while insisting -- privately, and at times publicly -- that Morocco extend fundamental rights to everyone whom it claims as a citizen.    

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Et Tu, Menendez?

Why Democrats beating Tehran down with additional sanctions and zero enrichment guarantees could backfire, badly.

If you squeeze a bully's b -- sorry, fingers -- really hard, and he buckles, then you keep squeezing until you bring him to his knees, right? That, in any case, is the logic which lies behind the bipartisan revolt against President Barack Obama's diplomacy with Iran. In an op-ed in USA Today, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained why he had defied the administration's urgent request that Congress hang fire on further sanctions: "Iran is on the ropes because of its intransigent policies and our collective will.... Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program."

It's hardly an absurd proposition. Menendez, one of the leading Democratic Iran hawks, also recently told an AIPAC meeting that when he began his drive to impose sanctions -- a drive for which the White House might want to claim a little bit of credit as well -- he was told that force would never bring the Iranians to the table. I'm not sure who, besides Flynt Leverett, argued against coercion, but it's an unarguable fact that sanctions on Iran's oil sales and financial system, imposed by the European Union as well as Congress, have forced the Iranians to take the nuclear negotiations more seriously than they have in the past, and may even have helped elect the moderate president Hassan Rouhani.

So why is the White House insisting that Menendez and his colleagues on the left and right are provoking "a march to war"? The obvious answer, furnished by Secretary of State John Kerry, among others, is that Iran would view additional sanctions imposed in the middle of the most delicate negotiations as a sign of bad faith. More to the point, a punitive response by the West would undermine the moderates on Rouhani's team, and prove to Iranian hard-liners -- including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei -- that the United States and its allies are an intransigent adversary intent on humiliating Iran and ultimately overthrowing its Islamic regime.

Obama's critics have a riposte to this claim: new sanctions won't kick in for another three to six months, and thus will function as an effective Sword of Damocles while talks continue. That's a pretty risky gamble, especially because anything that prolongs the negotiations gives Iran more time to enrich uranium and reach a point of no return at which it could produce enough fuel to fill a bomb.

But that's not the biggest problem with the squeeze-‘em-till-they-drop crowd. The reason why Menendez and others really are marching on a path to war is that they are demanding an outcome which Iran manifestly will not accept: zero enrichment. As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, puts it, "This is a strategy based upon hope that is not supported by the evidence of Iranian actions over the past decade, its past statements, or common sense."  

In 2004, I spent a week in Tehran talking to officials in the nuclear establishment. Almost all of them, no matter how moderate, found some way of working into the conversation a letter Henry Kissinger is said to have written to the Shah in the mid-1970s encouraging him to pursue nuclear power. The evidence seems to show that in fact Kissinger demanded stringent controls on any nuclear facility, but no matter: The message they conveyed to me was that what was good for the Shah was good for the Ayatollah. Even though, as I was also repeatedly told, Iran had absolutely no wish to develop nuclear weapons, it would never agree to forego nuclear enrichment. The first part may have been false, but I had no reason to doubt the second. Even Menendez conceded in his AIPAC speech that acquiescence to the American demand would spell "the end of the revolution," at least for the hardliners in command.    

The negotiations in Geneva last week appear to have foundered on Iran's insistence that the so-called P5+1 powers explicitly acknowledge Tehran's "right to enrich." Washington and its allies were prepared to allow Iran to continue spinning its centrifuges in order to produce low-enriched fuel, though they seem to have balked at the language Tehran wanted. That problem can probably be solved through some form of constructive ambiguity -- but not, of course, if the P5+1 demands that all enrichment activity stop.

I have no idea why Menendez and other Democrats believe that more pressure will make Iran abandon a core tenet of the revolution and thus undermine their claim to rule. (I asked for an interview, but the New Jersey senator was not available.) Maybe they believe it because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made zero enrichment his own bottom line.

One of the consistently bizarre elements of the whole debate is how Israel's definition of its national security appears to have superseded Washington's. Senate majority leader Harry Reid explained his skepticism about the current round of negotiations, saying, "I hope we can work out something with Iran, but I'm a person who really believes in the state of Israel." So, I think, does Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been visiting Israel since Netanyahu was in short pants. But Kerry may recognize that while Israel would be prepared to go to war -- and to draw the United States into that war -- in order to strip Iran of any vestige of its nuclear capacity, this would be a catastrophe for Washington, which is still digging itself out of the rubble of past military adventures in the region.

With Iran reportedly prepared to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to dispose of its existing stockpile of such fuel in exchange for very modest sanctions relief (and the release of a small fraction of the $50 billion in frozen Iranian assets), diplomats could well reach a first-stage agreement when they reconvene next week. But in order to advance further, Congress and the European Union will have to agree to remove sanctions incrementally as Iran reduces its stock of centrifuges, disables some facilities, and allows intrusive inspection of others. But if Senate Democrats continue to denounce the negotiations as a giveaway -- "wild-eyed hope" rather than "clear-eyed pragmatism," as Menendez puts it -- then the Iranians will recognize that the sanctions relief they demand is an illusion.

Obama, it's true, can invoke national security in order to temporarily waive sanctions. But only Congress can permanently remove them. And Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drawn up, and threatened to introduce, a bill which would bar the president from waiving sanctions. That might be a Rubicon the Democratic hawks would not cross -- though Menendez did promise AIPAC that "every day in Tehran will be a worse day than the last until the regime foregoes its nuclear ambition."

Barack Obama has dropped, one by one, his dreams of a "transformative" foreign policy. His policy of "mutual respect" in the Middle East has not elevated America in the eyes either of regimes or their peoples. The "reset" with Russia failed when Vladimir Putin returned to power. Syria has gone to hell on his watch. He has achieved far less than he had hoped on nuclear nonproliferation and on climate change. But on Iran, where the consequences of failure are most grave, Obama's policy of patient engagement has been vindicated by events. He now has a partner he might be able to work with, and an Iranian public desperate for relief from sanctions. The path to a solution, though full of obstacles, is clear. This would be a victory, should it come, which the president has fully earned. (And lord knows he needs one.) But with the Ayatollah on one side, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his Democratic chorus on the other, he -- and we -- may not get there. If and when diplomacy gives way to war, let's not forget who to blame.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images