A Shameful Decision on Western Sahara

Nothing demonstrates the emptiness of Biden administration rhetoric about “rules-based order” better than letting Trump’s decision stand.

Axios reported last week that the Biden administration would not reverse Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara:

The decision that emerged from these discussions was not to reverse Trump's policy but to work with the Moroccans on appointing a new UN envoy for the Western Sahara in order to try and resume talks on possible autonomy for the sparsely populated territory, according to two sources familiar with those discussions.

Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory was widely criticized at the time and in the months since then because it made a mockery of U.S. opposition to illegal annexation. Granting recognition to Morocco’s claims meant endorsing the illegal seizure of territory by force, and it gave a U.S. stamp of approval to the illegal occupation of the land of an indigenous people. If there was ever an example of Trump’s nakedly transactional approach to foreign policy producing bad results, this was it. Recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was the sort of cynical trampling of international law that Biden claims to oppose, but this seems to be one more issue on which Biden can’t be bothered to act. Predictions that Biden was unlikely to reverse the decision appear to have been correct.

Opposition to Trump’s Western Sahara decision runs the gamut of everyone from Sahrawis to progressive and conservative senators to James Baker to John Bolton. Baker called the decision “an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy that the United States has espoused and respected for many years.” Reversing Trump’s recognition would not only be the right thing to do, but it would be a fairly popular move as well. Almost no one except for former Trump administration officials would object to undoing this act of diplomatic vandalism, and even most of them wouldn’t care. Nothing demonstrates the emptiness of Biden administration rhetoric about “rules-based order” better than letting Trump’s decision stand. The Biden administration had a ready-made opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessor by taking a stand for the principle of self-determination and in support of the human rights of the Sahrawi people, and it seems that they are going to squander it for the dubious benefit of keeping a client regime happy.

This is not the first time that U.S. clients have been held to a different standard than other states, but it is examples of blatant hypocrisy like this that erode respect for international law. Giving illegal annexation and occupation a stamp of approval, whether it is in Western Sahara or in the Golan Heights, is a signal to other states that the U.S. doesn’t take the prohibition on territorial conquest by force seriously. The next time that a U.S. official criticizes another government’s illegal annexation and occupation of territory, the other government will be able to point to Western Sahara and dismiss the complaint out of hand.

In exchange for abandoning core principles and selling out the Sahrawi people, the U.S. will have the satisfaction of knowing that relations between Morocco and Israel may marginally improve for a little while. Months later, no one can explain how U.S. interests have been served by any of this, because the U.S. has suffered only losses. Trump’s original decision was outrageous, and Biden’s apparent decision to keep Trump’s policy is shameful.