Friday, December 13, 2013

Muddling Through the Sahara

Lost in the news coming from Syria and Iran, King Mohammed VI of Morocco recently visited the White House.  Negotiations seeking a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict are evidently on the back burner, as the conflict was mentioned only perfunctorily in a joint statement between the two leaders.

For decades the U.S. and the international community have pursued comprehensive solutions that would at once end the plight of the stateless Sahrawi people and create firm regional borders.  This “rational-comprehensive” model or “root” method of problem solving, as described by Lindblom in the classic article “TheScience of Muddling Through,” has proved to be ineffective in the Western Sahara.  If gridlock is to be overcome then thinking on this conflict must shift from a comprehensive solution to a “branch” method of successive limited comparisons of narrowed, possible options.  
                                          (For more info, ask....Javier Bardem?)

Defining values and objectives in the Western Sahara has proven difficult for the U.S.  The U.S. supports a settlement that maintains Moroccan authority over the region in recognition that Morocco is a major non-NATO ally in an unstable region and that a newly independent Western Sahara is likely to be inherently unstable, running the risk of exploitation by jihadist forces.  But this viewpoint denies the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people.  The U.S. supports Morocco as a relatively secular and free society while Morocco denies political freedom to the Sahrawis and has violated human rights in the recent past.  

Or perhaps Obama and the King have it right – we shouldn’t even attempt to achieve a solution to the problem.  Just ignore the small Sahrawi population until Morocco can populate and develop the region to the point that its claim will be incontestable.

Separating the means from the ends, or rather the policy outcomes stemming from defined objectives, is often impossible.  For example, the suffering of the Sahrawi people could be alleviated by funneling international aid through Algeria to refugees, but this may be a policy goal in its own right for some people. 

It has proved impossible to achieve across the board consensus on values and objectives from the various policy making constituencies.  There is a strong faction in the U.S. Congress that supports the Sahrawi cause and advocates a referendum by the Western Saharan population which would include political independence.  Others want to remove restrictions on the massive aid the U.S. provides to Morocco for use to develop the disputed territory.  Internationally, Northern African countries support Algeria and the Sahrawi cause and ostracize Morocco, while Morocco’s allies France and Spain adamantly reject efforts to authorize the UN to monitor human rights abuses.

Even on issues that have the most consensus it is impossible to identify and analyze every policy option.  Every party agrees in principle that the condition of the refugees should be improved, but how to do so efficiently and effectively?  What kind of aid would be most effective?  How can aid be prevented from being exploited by jihadist elements that may be mixed in the refugee camps?  Is there a way to use aid to induce an amenable political outcome?

The gears of the Western Saharan conflict have to be greased if we are going to see any shift in the positions of the parties involved.  The U.S. should seek to build on existing policies through incremental change instead of advocating a dramatic, comprehensive solution.

For example, the Moroccan government has recently facilitated phone calls between Sahrawi refugees in Algeria and family left behind in the disputed territory.  A few meetings have even taken place.  This is small movement, but if encouraged could grow into something more.  Through successive limited comparison of options that are actually possible the overall dynamic can eventually, if perhaps sluggishly, be changed.

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