Saturday, April 15, 2006

Morocco and American Evangelicals

It should come as no surprise that the recent Ten Commandments miniseries was filmed in Morocco. Dozens of 'ancient' (Gladiator, Alexander) and 'medieval' (Kingdom of Heaven), even contemporary (Mummy, Blackhawk Down), films have been staged in Morocco, especially around the Ouarzazate region, which offers everything from snow-covered mountains to bleak desert-scapes. Labor and extras come very cheap, with recent movies taking advantage of the 'ancient' terrain and readily available workforce. Filmakers, like those that made the new Commandments, also take advantage of Morocco's cultural background to make up for their lack of imagination. In his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese appropriated (perverted?) Moroccan Arab and Berber elements for his portrayal of ancient Palestine; the Peter Gabriel soundtrack even used Moroccan music from the filming.

So it’s not very interesting that the new Ten Commandments was done in Morocco.

What is interesting is that Morocco has allowed the press to make a big deal about it. For example, "
Morocco plays Egypt in 'Ten Commandments' miniseries" from CNN. Do a Google news search for Morocco and Ten Commandments and see all the hits.

Think about it. Is there any Middle Eastern country in the world that would feel comfortable letting this happen on their soil? Putting aside the fact that few Middle Eastern countries are secure enough to allow filming, which ones would want to boast that they’re the backdrop? That the lazy movie-makers (mis)appropriated a Muslim culture’s articles and artifacts as props? I wonder what Morocco’s majority Islamic movement thinks about all this -- letting Western film companies paint their historical fantasies on the canvas of Islamic Moroccan culture? Morocco’s monarchical regime, however, probably considers this a feather in its cap.

As repression in Western Sahara has increased since last May, and as Rabat has faced more pressure to cooperate with the peace process, Morocco is desperately pressing every button in Washington. The biggest one: American evangelicals.

It seems like an unlikely alliance: A conservative, centuries-old Islamic Monarchy and the religious base of the U.S. far right. But there’s a saying in Washington: All roads lead to Tel Aviv. Morocco has never hid its close relations with Israel, whether acting as a backchannel for Camp David (1979) or, now, as one of its closest allies. Even though it has cost MOrocco on the street, where Islamists now hold sway with the population, Morocco's regime is looks to Washington and Paris for its survival, not to its population. (Western Sahara has also estranged Morocco from Africa, where it is the only African state not to be a part of the African Union.)

Being close to Evangelicals and Israel earns points where it matters most: in the White House. For Morocco, the State Department is filled with too many career officers who actually know the history of the Western Sahara conflict, and are thus sympathetic to Polisario. The White House, on the other hand, is obviously filled with ideologically driven neo-conservatives, with one foot in Evangelical churches and one foot in the Machiavellian philosophy of Leo Strauss. A Moroccan alliance with American Evangelicals accomplishes both by it showing Rabat’s commitment to the neo-conservative agenda.

Let’s take, for example, the website,, which is as sadly propagandistic as it is poorly designed. Ethics and aesthetics aside, the National Clergy Council founded the website. A 'a growing and dynamic nationwide network of church leaders from every Christian tradition,' the National Clergy Council recently held a series of luncheons 'to focus attention on the little-known and unresolved humanitarian crisis in the Western Sahara region of North Africa.' Sounds good, right? Wait to you see the way the free meals were framed:

'Attendees will learn about the abuse of tens of thousands of refugees and the forced abductions of their children as recruits for a once Cuban-backed Marxist revolution in the region. Many of these children, now adults, remain separated from their families. The program will include a visiting delegation from the Western Sahara. Members will tell their own compelling stories. Attendees will also learn of the extraordinary invitation to American church leaders to assist in a non-financial way in resolving this conflict and relieving the suffering of massive numbers of victims.' (
(Associated with this anti-Polisario smear campaign is Michael Kirtley, of rhe 501c3 non-profit “Friendship Caravan” (, which is all about evangelical missions to Morocco. Kirtley’s web-designer is Tim Resch, who runs 'Friends of Morocco', a non-profit association of returned Peace Corps volunteers that makes no qualms about its close cooperation with the Moroccan government.)

Something of this sort could only be put on with the help of the Moroccan government (e.g., to fly in Polisario's 'victims'). Though it was probably the brainchild of one of seven lobbies Rabat has working for it in Washington.

Another noted effort of the pro-Moroccan lobby,, has focused on the now defunct issue of Moroccan POWs held by Polisario. Though it tries to look like some humanitarian initiative, that website was registered by a David White of the powerful Edelman lobbying firm.

Those lobbies (and evangelicals),
detailed in Le Journal, also include many former U.S. diplomats who now stump for Rabat.

Chasli, in his blog, Western Sahara Endgame, has
recently commented on the activities of former U.S. diplomat turned pro-Moroccan lobbyist Robert Holley. Holly's organization, the Moroccan-American Center for Policy (MACP, or Mac-Pee as the folks on the Hill and in State say), is funded by the Moroccan government and has had some recent success raising the profile of the Western Sahara conflict in Washington -- albeit in Morocco's favor. Chasli seems to think it’s unprincipled that Holley went from criticizing Morocco to sucking from its Royal teet. I would argue that if Holley had a principled bone in his body, he probably would have found it hard to work for State Department in Rabat, where U.S. hypocrisy in the Middle East is at its finest.

However, there’s another reason why Morocco is working so hard to recruit evangelicals to its side of the Western Sahara conflict. It’s actually a counter-recruitment effort.

For years, Polisario has been cultivating solidarity among church groups in the United States, including evangelicals. Each year dozens of Sahrawis from the refugee camps visit U.S. families for the summer, trips organized through churches. And, in turn, dozens of church goers visit the camps, along with congressional staffers and the occasional elected official. See the website of Homeland International, which makes the pro-Moroccan sites look pretty shabby.

Perhaps the biggest sign of Polisario's success on this front is that Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma favors a referendum in Western Sahara. Okalahoma is the home of Kerr-McGee, which has a contract with Morocco to illegally look for oil in the occupied Western Sahara. It is also the home of a church group that is very active on the issue. Though Inhofe got more money from “energy/natural resources” contributions in 2002 than any other, he has strangely become one of Polisario’s main supporters among congressional conservatives.

What Morocco fears most is that people in the United States, like those church activists in Oklahoma, will pressure their government into adopting a new policy on Western Sahara. Morocco’s ham-fisted efforts not only seek to give it more clout in the White House’s National Security Council, but also among a grassroots network that is very influential these days -- one that is trending in favor of self-determination for Western Sahara.

But if I were a Moroccan I'd wonder why my government is spending millions on lobbies while my country is
drowning in poverty.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Annan Plan for Western Sahara?

According to South Africa's Sunday Times and AFP UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is working on his own plan to resolve the thirty-year-old Western Sahara conflict. The details of the plan have not yet been released.

Morocco, who controls most of the Territory, has said that it is working on its own autonomy proposal, one that would grant Western Sahara self-governance within Moroccan 'sovereignty'. The Polisario Front, an indigenous independence movement, rejects autonomy. Citing international law, it calls for the exercise of the right of self-determination -- to let the Western Saharans express their preference for independence.

Time is running short for the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), whose mandate expires this month. MINURSO has routinely been extended since its creation in 1991, but the US representative at the UN, John Bolton, wants to see the Mission scuttled unless serious progress towards a resolution can be made.

According to the Sunday Times/AFP, "Emerging from a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Annan declined to go into details of his plan and said he had not been informed about another project for autonomy of the region that Morocco intends to present to the UN."

The major question facing Annan is the Western Saharans' right of self-determination, which vexed the previous mediator, James Baker, the former US secretary of state. Baker's 2003 plan offered a short four year period of autonomy followed by a self-determination vote including both Moroccans settlers inside of, and persons native to, Western Sahara. Even with Moroccan settlers outnumbering native Western Saharans by at least two to one, Morocco has rejected any proposal that questions its 'territorial integrity' through an independence vote.

Annan himself has said that self-determination is based on the right to choose independence. Yet Annan said his own plan, according to the article, "would be cautious, seek to be mutually acceptable by those involved and capable of being put into practice without being imposed on any of the parties."

If Morocco rejects any option of independence, yet even Annan says that the Western Saharans have a right to independence, how could he propose something that's "mutually acceptable"? Polisario will never give up independence, Morocco will never allow it, and the Security Council will not force either side to accept something they don't like.

Annan obviously doesn't have an ace up his sleeve. More likely, he wants to create the perception of progress in Western Sahara to counter Bolton's Polisario sympathies and budget-cutting Zealotry. Annan will be wise to introduce his plan before the parties can react to it, but just in time to affect the Security Council debate on MINURSO at the end of this month.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

April 2006 - Moment of Truth?

Will Bolton Break the Western Sahara Stalemate?

April 2006 could become a decisive month in the history of the Western Sahara conflict. The United States’ temporary UN representative, John Bolton, has made no secret of his desire to shake things up in the Sahara -- to unsettle the diplomatic war of attrition being waged by Morocco and the Algerian-backed independence front Polisario. His chance will come at the end of April, when the mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) comes up for renewal. Bolton claims that his position with respect to MINURSO is principled. Like other UN missions, Bolton has argued that the UN operation in Western Sahara should be terminated unless it can fulfill its mandate. (One Moroccan magazine, Le Journal, however, recently reported that Bolton’s boss, Secretary of State Condi Rice, has had to rein him in on Western Sahara).

Bolton is no newcomer to the Western Sahara conflict. Starting in 1997, he worked -- pro-bono -- under former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. As Kofi Annan’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara until 2004, Baker led negotiations between Morocco and Polisario. Baker first worked out all the problems with the 1991 UN Settlement Plan until Morocco rejected it in 2000. Then Baker started working on autonomy proposals that would also allow for an act of self-determination. The first, presented in 2001, was close to what Morocco wants because it did not offer independence outright. The second, presented in 2003, explicity reintroduced the idea of independence, and so Morocco rejected it. All the time, Bolton was in the loop, until Baker resigned in June 2004.

When introducing himself at the United Nations last fall, Bolton reportedly told every mission that if he did one thing during his short recess-appointment mandate, he would fix Western Sahara. What Bolton has in mind is not clear, except that he is obviously threatening to pull the plug on a mission that has existed for fifteen years come April.

The Security Council has ritually extended the Mission’s mandate since its creation in 1991, which saw the end of the sixteen-year war between Morocco and Polisario. MINURSO was originally had a six month timetable for a referendum polling 80,000 Saharans. Both Morocco and Polisario, however, had very different ideas about who should vote. During its first nine years, MINURSO tried to organize a classic decolonization referendum. It was supposed to allow indigenous Western Saharans to choose between independence and integration. Following the death of King Hassan II in mid-1999, the Moroccan regime lost interest in the referendum. The key architect of Morocco’s effort to fix the vote in its favor, Interior Minister Driss Basri, was removed from power soon after King Mohammed VI took over. With Basri and Hassan out of the way, the Morocco’s power-elite, especially the military-security apparatus, could reassert itself through the new King, and abandon the idea of an referendum on independence.

During negotiations in Berlin in 2000 (the last known face-to-face meeting between Morocco and the independence front Polisario), Morocco expressed its willingness to consider autonomy as a definitive final status, yet independence had to be taken off the table. France and the United States, Morocco’s strongest backers, agreed with Morocco’s turn towards “autonomy”, as the likely vote for independence in Western Sahara would be too traumatic for Morocco’s new regime head.

The problem now facing the Security Council is that MINURSO exists to hold a referendum on independence. Morocco rejects any peace proposal that would question its “sovereignty” vis-à-vis independence, even when the majority of voters in the referendum would be Moroccan citizens, voting alongside native Western Saharans. Yet the Secretary General has made it clear that “It is difficult to envision a political solution that, as required by Security Council resolution 1429 (2002), provides for self-determination but that nevertheless precludes the possibility of independence as one of several ballot options.”

Kofi Annan’s new Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum, apparently is having trouble filling Baker’s shoes. When touring the region last fall he called the conflict “quasi-irreconcilable”. He told the Security Council in April that it would not be resolved this year. Van Walsum reportedly felt that he wasn’t “fully briefed” before taking on the assignment.

For the French government, especially Jacques Chirac, who is personally involved with the Moroccan royal family, extending MINURSO for the sake of monitoring the ceasefire is fine with them. Whatever is good for Morocco determines the French vote on the Security Council. (It’s no wonder that Polisario is eagerly awaiting the French presidential elections.)

Thus the only hope for shaking up the Western Sahara deadlock, at this point, is Bolton. Bolton, however, as a Baker protégé, is bad for Morocco, and Rabat knows it. The fact that Baker showed sympathy for Polisario was enough to put him on Morocco’s bad side. No need to mention Baker's disgust with Morocco's lack of cooperation following Rabat's rejection of his 2003 Peace Plan. It’s no secret that Bolton is far right, and no secret that some of Polisario’s biggest supporters in Washington are as far right as can be. (Though Polisario also counts Ted Kennedy among their supporters as well.)

How much freedom of movement Bolton has on the East River is unknown. So far he has carried out his campaign of reforms with full support from Washington. That might buy him some leverage on his pet issue of Western Sahara, though Morocco’s supporters on the National Security Council (i.e., Cold Warrior Elliot Abrams) probably like the status quo -- even if it means extending MINURSO ad nauseam, perhaps for another fifteen years and another half-billion dollars.