During his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump held nothing back when accusing Hillary Clinton of doing “favors” for the Kingdom of Morocco as secretary of state and later getting $28 million for the Clinton Foundation and related nonprofits in return. It was a foreign money scandal that plagued the final weeks of Clinton’s presidential bid – with media reports labeling it a “Moroccan mess” just two days before voters went to the polls.
Now human rights groups are arguing that President Trump’s latest Arab accord is also a sell-off – only this time they say what was relinquished were the human rights of the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara, a 100,000-square-mile territory in northwestern Africa that Morocco and a rebel group, the Polisario Front, have laid claim to for nearly 50 years.
Critics of the Morocco-Israel deal – and they span the ideological spectrum — argue that the decision to recognize Morocco as the disputed territory’s legitimate ruler is a significant shift in longtime U.S. policy that could jeopardize American alliances in the region and lead to the persecution of religious minorities in the Muslim-dominated region.
It’s a complex issue that doesn’t follow the usual partisan lines of opinion regarding Trump’s “America-first” foreign policy goals. Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, helped broker the deal, and he and the president have touted it as a major boon for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.
“Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations — a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 10.
“Morocco recognized the United States in 1777,” the president continued. “It is thus fitting we recognize their sovereignty over the Western Sahara.”
In agreeing to the deal, Morocco became the sixth Arab state to recognize Israel since the Arab-Israeli conflict began in 1948 and the fourth Arab nation to do so during Trump’s time as president. A peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Bahrain, came late in the summer and has been compared to the 1977 Camp David Accords. It won plaudits from across the political spectrum.
But the Morocco agreement is significantly different, altering decades of U.S. recognition of Western Sahara’s autonomy. The U.S.-Morocco relationship dates to the fledging days of the United States after breaking free of British control. Critics argue Trump’s action treats Western Sahara, a territory that has embraced Western ideals and norms, like a British colony during the Victorian era.
“The United States has unwisely abandoned its principles for something that will make no difference in the position of the international community and to the resolution of the conflict,” former Secretary of State James Baker argued in a Washington Post op-ed last week. “Many U.S. allies and others have already made statements to that effect. The upcoming Biden administration would do well to rescind this rash and cynical action.”
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of Trump’s most stalwart supporters in Congress, also derided the decision, calling it “shocking and deeply disappointing.”
In remarks on the Senate floor and in a written statement, Inhofe said he is “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away. … The president has been poorly advised by his team. He could have made the deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people.”
There were enough sweeteners in the pact for Morocco to agree without selling out Western Sahara, the critics say. Just weeks after the agreement, the administration prepared to sell arms to Morocco, according to press reports citing congressional aides. Trump provided similar arms sales to the UAE after its agreement with Israel. The Senate in early December failed to block the Moroccan sale.
With Baker and others calling on President-elect Biden to overturn the Western Sahara provision of the deal, Morocco has redoubled its lobbying efforts to keep it intact. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita on Wednesday pressed the incoming administration to preserve the deal as currently agreed to. A Biden transition spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
Human rights groups and international religious freedom activists are frantically pressing Trump, as well as Biden, to roll back the U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. On Dec. 11 several of these groups sent a letter to Trump pointedly reminding him of his previous stance.
“It is deeply troubling that your administration would take this action when you yourself exposed attempts by Morocco to influence Hillary Clinton to do just what you have done,” the activists said in a letter circulated by Suzanne Scholte of the U.S. Western Sahara Foundation. “Your campaign and you personally tweeted about the deep state and corruption over the issue in 2016.” Numerous prominent human rights activists signed on, although they asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal from Morocco and other elements of the foreign policy community.
Back in 2016, when Clinton appeared poised to win the White House, congressional Republicans pledged to launch a series of investigations into whether she had engaged in a play-to-play deal with Moroccan officials and other foreign powers while secretary of state. Years after leaving the Cabinet, she agreed to travel to Morocco to attend a 2015 Clinton Global Initiative fundraiser but backed out to avoid controversy. The king of Morocco had pledged to donate $12 million with the understanding that Clinton would attend, according to emails released by WikiLeaks in mid-October 2016. Though Hillary did not attend, Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea were on hand for the event. The foundation, which doesn’t have to disclose the gift under U.S. tax law, did not confirm whether it was received.
The activists’ letter notes that the Trump campaign in 2016 shared a graphic highlighting the promised $12 million donation. The groups also noted that in late-October 2016, Trump tweeted an article with the headline: “ ‘Hillary’s Two Official Favors to Morocco Resulted in $28 million for Clinton Foundation’ #Drain the Swamp.”
“Please reverse your decision and recognize the Sahrawi Republic and show your commitment to nations that embrace democratic values, freedom of expression, the right to vote, a free market economy, equal rights for women and religious freedom as opposed to kingdoms like Morocco that trample on human rights, use war and invasion to attack their neighbor, and just last month, caused war to break out by violating the cease fire when unarmed civilians were attacked across the buffer zone by Kingdom Morocco’s army.”
The groups highlighted the Sahrawis’ embrace of Western ideals, including religious freedom. The Sahrawis have allowed many Americans, sponsored by Christian churches, to live in refugee camps and raise their families in the area while openly practicing their faith.
The complicated geopolitical issue has perplexed some pro-Israel advocates who are encouraged by the Trump administration’s other normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries but are urging Biden to roll back the Western Sahara provisions.
“As you can imagine, I am deeply torn over this question,” Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of the late Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos and head of the Lantos Human Rights Foundation, told RealClearPolitics. “I am thrilled that Morocco has recognized the state of Israel. More broadly, I consider the Abraham Accords [normalizing Israeli-UAE relations] to be a towering achievement of the Trump administration. But I cannot support the betrayal of the rights of the Western Saharan people.”
She noted that both the International Court of Justice (the United Nations’ judicial body) and the European Court of Human Rights have rejected Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over the Western Saharan territory. “I support a referendum that would give the Sahrawi people the right to self-determination. The fact that this is a largely forgotten conflict does not justify sacrificing the rights of this community, even in the pursuit of another extremely important and worthy goal.”
Lantos Swett is a leading candidate to replace former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
Other human rights organizations were more circumspect but hopeful that Biden would find a way to thread the needle in protecting Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.
“Few religious minorities remain in Morocco or Western Sahara, and those who do face serious difficulties and marginalization,” Kelsey Zorzi, the director of advocacy for global religious freedom at ADF International, told RCP. “We hope that, in any actions taken by the U.S. government or the international community, there is a push for greater respect for the religious freedom rights of religious minorities, including Christians, in the region.”