How Morocco Neutralized ‘The Bolton Effect’ on Western Sahara


Rabat – US President Donald Trump took international public opinion by surprise with his decision to fire national security adviser, John Bolton.

Despite the ideological affinity between Bolton and Trump, their shared dislike of the United Nations, and multilateralism, their diverging views on several foreign policy decisions have surfaced in many media reports.

In light of the nature of statements Trump has made about his now-former national adviser since last May, it became clear to observers in Washington that his departure from the Trump administration was no longer a matter of if, but of when. 

Bolton’s attempts to drag the US into war against Iran, his unsuccessful policy in Venezuela, his disagreement with Trump’s decision to open communications with the North Korean President, and his rejection of Trump’s decision to hold a secret meeting with the Taliban in Camp David Resort all accelerated his departure from the US administration.

Moroccan diplomacy, which has been wary of Bolton and has redoubled its efforts to push back against his attempts to leave his imprimatur on the Western Sahara conflict, must have cheered his departure with a sigh of relief. 

Having worked on the Western Sahara issue when he was a State Department official and assistant to the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, James Becker, from 1997 to 2004, Bolton was expected to use all his political weight to pressure the Security Council into accelerating the UN political process in order to force a final solution to the conflict

Read Also: UNSC September Schedule Omits Western Sahara Amid Post-Kohler Concerns

Pointing the finger at Morocco

Since he was dismissed from his last official position in the US government in 2006, Bolton has blamed Morocco for the failure of UN efforts to end the conflict in all his published work. He has also lashed out at the UN for not having the political will to impose a binding solution on all parties. Bolton has regularly stressed the need to enable the Sahrawis to exercise their right to self-determination through a referendum.

An analysis of Bolton’s statements on the subject for more than a decade, suggests that he was embittered by his and James Baker’s failure to end the conflict.  He, therefore, took advantage of his presence at the helm of the National Security Council to shape the outcome of the political process in line with his own convictions. Bolton’s personal stance on the conflict deviates from the official position adopted by the successive American administrations for twenty years, which is to maintain a position of positive neutrality, with some tacit support for the Moroccan position.

Bolton’s personal interest in the Western Sahara issue was conspicuous since the early days of his appointment as national security adviser. His appointment coincided with the UN Secretary-General’s submission of his annual report on Western Sahara in April 2018, and with the deliberations of the Security Council surrounding the annual resolution on the conflict. 

Bolton’s influence manifested itself in the adoption of Resolution 2414, which renewed  MINURSO’s mandate for six months only as opposed to the traditional one-year period. The shortening of MINURSO‘s mandate aimed to pressure Morocco and the Polisario Front, and push them into demonstrating goodwill and resolve to reach a final, and perhaps non-consensual, solution to the conflict. 

Since April 2018, the Security Council has adopted three resolutions, the latest of which was resolution 2468, which extended MINURSO‘s mandate for six months. The shortening of MINURSO’s mandate, and the pressure that the US put on the parties to work out a solution, paved the way towards two roundtables in Geneva in December 2018 and March 2019 under the auspices  of former Personal Representative of the United Nations, Horst Köhler.

Bolton’s personal resolve

Bolton’s resolve to personally monitor the conflict, as well as to shape and accelerate its resolution, was evident in his December 2018 address to the Heritage Foundation. During the address, he expressed his frustration with the Security Council’s failure to manage the conflict as well as  MINURSO’s failure in its mission to hold a referendum of self-determination. Bolton also expressed his personal commitment and the determination of the US administration to put an end to what he sees as the Security Council’s failure to reach a final solution to the conflict

Bolton took many by surprise when he mentioned the referendum and seemed committed to making it a priority. Bolton’s media appearance indicated that he was personally monitoring the conflict, and more, that he was adamant about pressuring the parties and the Security Council into action.

The speech came nearly a month after Algeria had signed a contract with lobbying firm Keene Consulting, owned by Bolton’s close friend  David Keene.  These two events suggested that Keene and Bolton would work collaboratively to shape the outcome of the UN political process to the benefit of Algeria and the Polisario.

Since Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser, I called on Moroccan diplomacy to act quickly and to mobilize all its energies, human resources, and contacts in Washington to push back against his plans and prevent him from undermining Morocco’s strategic interests and its strategic relations with the US.

I suggested that one of the solutions available to Morocco to neutralize Bolton was to cozy up  to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, known for his affinity with Trump, for being part of the president’s inner circle, and also for having less than friendly relations with Bolton. 

Despite Bolton’s political weight and strong personality, it was a given that he could not single-handedly take any foreign policy decisions or impose them on the US administration. There are many players in the US decision-making process, including the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the White House, which has the final say in decision-making.

A positive outcome for Morocco despite all the challenges

An analysis of the outcome of the UN-led political process of Western Sahara during Bolton’s 17-month tenure, shows that it has been more positive for Morocco than many believed. Morocco has shown a sense of savviness and resilience in dealing with what the media dubbed as “The Bolton effect.”

Notwithstanding the Security Council’s decision to shorten  MINURSO’s mandate, the three resolutions adopted by the Security Council since April 2018 have enabled Morocco to make diplomatic achievements that it had failed to achieve in the years prior to 2018. 

Morocco’s diplomatic leap forward is illustrated by  resolutions 2414, 2440, and 2468, which all emphasize the need  to achieve a “realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.”  These resolutions are the first in which the Security Council discusses the outcome of the political process, and stresses the parties’ need to be realistic in order to reach a practical and lasting solution.

The Security Council’s new outlook means that a winner-loser solution is no longer on the table, which is in line with Morocco’s position. Rabat has long reiterated that its autonomy proposal is a face-saving solution that protects the interests of all parties, including the Polisario, while preserving Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.

The preamble to resolution 2468 includes new pro-Morocco language, namely the Security Council’s emphasis on its commitment to supporting the parties to reach a  just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise. In comparison with previous resolutions, the phrase “based on compromise” has been added to highlight, once again, that the Security Council will not impose any solution that is not based on compromise. 

 What further underscores the Security Council’s approach is the fact that it stressed that the political solution will be based on compromise three times in Resolution 2414, four times in Resolution 2440, and five times in Resolution 2468.

 The language in the new resolutions was not as heavily used in all previous resolutions. The phrase “on the basis of consensus” was mentioned only once in all resolutions adopted since 2007, except for resolutions 1754 and 1783, which did not include it at all.

Additionally, resolutions 2440 and 2468 mentioned Algeria and refer to it on quasi-equal footing with Morocco. This is an unprecedented change in the language adopted by the Council on this issue since the start of the political process in 2007. While the importance of Algeria’s participation in the political process was mentioned three times in Resolution 2440, it was mentioned five times in resolution 2468. This suggests a gradual shift within the Security Council to consider Algeria a key party in the conflict. This shift is in line with Morocco’s stance. Morocco has long insisted that Algeria be considered a key party to the conflict, and on the fact that the dispute cannot be solved as long as Algeria is not seen as such.

Read Also: Morocco Spends $1.38 Million in Lobbying in 2018 to Beat Algeria in US

Based on the above, one can safely say  that Morocco did not only emerge unscathed from Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, but also made significant diplomatic gains it had not been able to achieve in the past. One possible explanation for this could be that Morocco has benefited from increased contact with and outreach to US State Department and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

The political gains Morocco has made during  Bolton’s tenure in the US administration, suggest that Morocco has benefited from the rocky and unfriendly personal relationship between Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is an open secret in Washington that his personal feud with Pompeo is so intractable that the two communicated through intermediaries. Morocco may have taken advantage of these circumstances  to cozy up to the US Secretary of State and senior State Department officials to convince them to maintain the US traditional stance on the conflict, and to prevent Bolton from imposing his own convictions and personal agenda.

Morocco has also managed to get its message across to the White House by cozying up  to President Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner. Kushner made two visits to Morocco in 2019; during one visit, he was received by King Mohammed VI.  These two visits suggest that the Moroccan diplomacy has succeeded in passing its message along to President Trump via his son-in-law, thus neutralizing  Bolton and preventing him from undermining Morocco’s interests or negatively affecting Moroccan-American relations. 

The ultimate decision-maker in the current US administration is President Trump, and if Morocco succeeded in cozying up to his closest associates, it will have gone a long way to aborting all its opponents’ schemes to stymie its efforts to preserve its diplomatic gains and sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.