Morocco’s Jewish population, whose roots antedate the Arabo-Islamic conquest of North Africa, emigrated in its majority toward Israel and France in the years after World War II. Israel and Morocco have a decades-long history of unofficial cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
Morocco was therefore expected to take part in the Abraham Accords, the breakthrough peace between Israel and its mainly Arabo-Islamic neighbors that has eluded diplomats, statesmen, and soldiers for over half a century. The deal with Morocco is particularly significant as it reaches beyond the Middle East epicenter of the Arab–Israel conflict, underscoring the latter’s global strategic importance. In the largest sense, the Abraham Accords are a crucial test of the ability of Islamic nations to make their peace with the open-society, liberal-democracy regimes of the West.
With a pleasing coincidence of the calendar, the Israel–Morocco deal was announced at the onset of the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates God’s protection and is also a memory of a fight for freedom and independence.
This was likely on the mind of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), when, while applauding the latest step in the diplomatic process, he questioned, with some vehemence, the administration’s accompanying concession, or gift, to King Mohammed VI regarding the latter’s claim to Western Sahara, the territory to the south that is home to indigenous Arabo-Berber-black African tribes called Sahrawis. Since Spain’s withdrawal from what it called Spanish Sahara in the mid-1970s, the tribes and the Kingdom maintain it is theirs. A 1991 ceasefire ended 15 years of warfare.
America surely must guard its interests, security foremost among these, and stand by its friends. Keeping one’s contracts is important too, however, and feckless deeds affect security. And the U.S. has, through several administrations, gone on the record to support a fair resolution of the Western Sahara imbroglio.
The 1991 ceasefire included a commitment by both sides to a referendum on the question: yours or ours? Morocco armed forces by then controlled most of the territory. It is easy to guess who thought the vote was not needed.
In lay terms, the Moroccans’ position, endorsed by President Trump, is, possession is nine-tenths of the law. The reply of Sen. Inhofe, head of the Armed Services Committee, is, not so fast.
As a straight-shooting man of the plains, Inhofe likely reacted as did many other Americans over the years, to wit: put aside the politics local and international for a moment, which are weird anyway, and look at this in human terms. Thinking about our own history helps.
Such acute observers as John Ford and Johnny Cash gave much thought to primitive people caught in the currents of great forces over which they have no control. But do currents render injustice irrelevant?
In remembering the Apache Indians, the Man in Black evoked the legend of the stones, made from volcanic ash and said to have both therapeutic and spiritual properties (are they not the same?), which were formed from the tears of squaws learning of their warriors’ sacrificial deaths in a last stand against the U.S. cavalry:
Hoof prints and foot prints deep ruts the wagons made
The victor and the loser came by here
Not unlike the Apache, the Sahrawi fight was doomed. Other neighbors, from Mauritania, briefly got involved as well, hoping to get a piece of the territory, but soon left the field. Algeria helped the tribes, but without taking serious risks of a shooting war with Morocco, backed by France.
It was brutal, and the tribes fought bravely, but it was a lost cause; there were between 70,000 and 100,000 casualties on both sides, including noncombatants, and little thought was given to fair fights.
No head stones but these bones bring the mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands lying here
Nomads of the desert and experts at the long raid, the Sahrawi held on, but the better-armed, numerically superior Moroccans gradually cleared most of the territory, leaving the Sahrawi’s armed wing, the Polisario Front, in control of narrow strips of land in the east and southern borders, while about a hundred thousand of their people, a fourth of the population, retreated to refugee camps on the Algerian side.
They waited for a promised referendum, which we told them the UN would organize. We even paid for the UN ceasefire control force.
Camps are bleak places, even if you can find more miserable places, including the slums of many an African city. Hearing of them Inhofe may have thought, as others have, of Cheyenne Autumn.
The historically accurate premise of John Ford’s last film has the U.S. government breaking its word by denying the right of a Cheyenne band under Chief Little Wolf to return — as the government had promised — to their homeland in the northern Plains.
The Cheyenne are unhappy, freezing, sick, undernourished, and humiliated on a squalid reservation in Oklahoma. When one officer, sticking to the letter of his orders, provokes an attempted breakout and massacre, the other officer, going by his sense of law tempered by justice and encouraged by the girl he loves, a Quaker teacher who stays on the Cheyenne’s side, pleads the Indians’ case before Carl Schurz.
An emigrant from Germany to Missouri, Union general in the Civil War, later Republican senator, and crusading newspaper editor, Schurz at the time (late 1870s) was Secretary of the Interior and hence in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
There is drama, tragedy, and catharsis as a remnant makes it to freedom. There is humor, this being a John Ford movie. It would be too painful to watch without.
Who knows but that Inhofe was thinking about Schurz when he told the president that everybody wants to encourage the Abraham Accords and that making peace between Israel and the Arab nations based on mutual interests is much more sensible than nation-building and democracy-exportation to countries run by tyrants and child molesters.
But why bring the Sahrawi tribes into it? Should thought not be given to their dream of freedom? Surely public affairs cannot be dictated by grievances. Yet people cannot live and thrive if their history is suppressed: that is why we celebrate the miracle that rewarded the Maccabees’ resistance to tyranny.
The king of Morocco knows the importance of history; he embodies it to his people. He also needs Israel — and us — far more than we need him. Did he ask the folks who live there if they want to be his subjects and give him the abundant fishing banks off their coast and the phosphates under their land?
The referendum envisioned by the ceasefire agreement was postponed. Around the turn of the century, Mohammed VI, who had succeeded his father Hassan II, admitted what everyone knew: he would never allow a referendum because he would never give up what, like his father, he called “my southern provinces”:
Petrified but justified are these Apache tears.
Magnanimous, the king offered autonomy. This could — still could — work, if it gave the tribes local control over their affairs. Two Americans who could not be suspected of sympathy for the Sahrawi leadership, Frank Ruddy and James Baker, got involved, and both came away disappointed.
Ruddy, a lawyer and straight-talking ambassador, said the UN, supervising the ceasefire, was aiding and abetting a naked case of police state repression in the territory. Moroccan officials to this day deny the charges and reject the kind of testimony you hear from locals seized for demanding fairness — or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m reminded of Johnny Cash again:
Dead grass, dry roots, hunger crying in the night
Ghosts of broken hearts and laws are here
And who saw the young squaw, who died by their whiskey law
Tortured till she died of pain and fear
Where the soldiers laid her back are the black Apache tears
A few years later, Baker proposed the closest thing you could possibly design to be fair to both sides: a period of autonomous rule supervised by Morocco, with a path toward a final resolution. The Sahrawi leadership okayed it, but with them in control of the voting lists. The king rejected any opening to a vote on final status.
The Clinton administration tilted toward Morocco. Later, when, George W. Bush was president, a number of Republicans, mostly on the conservative side, tilted toward the Sahrawis. They knew that early on, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as the Polisario Front called their embryonic state (recognized by many African countries), had been, rhetorically at least, on the “anti-imperialist,” meaning anti-American, side. But this was an example of when you say the page has turned and it means just that. The situation on the ground offended conservatives’ sense of fair play.
Butv there were big-money lobbyists in the Kingdom’s corner, and some of these had Republican friends — or clients. Nothing happened.
Some Sahrawis, naturally, thought the autonomy plan should get a fair try. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government was giving incentives to people to settle in the territory, and there were eventually more northern Moroccans living in the Western Sahara than indigenous Sahrawis. Still nothing happened, but time — and demography — was moving.
Might pressure budge the Moroccans in a federalist direction as a way to secure some local rights and freedoms? Dubious; anyway, we have been busy exporting democracy and human rights to Iraq and Afghanistan.
So there has been no deal. Now the idea is to say a deal is done; and the Polisario Front says the ceasefire is broken. The Moroccans say they can crush any attempt to change the status quo by arms.
Returning to Jim Inhofe and American memories of our own mistakes with weaker tribes, you think of gold-rushers and settlers coming to the Black Hills, sacred — and promised — ground to the Lakota Sioux. Their anger at the settlers gave a motive for the Seventh Cavalry’s punitive expedition, which took place the year before Carl Schurz was appointed as Secretary of the Interior. There is some dispute regarding what George Custer’s motives were, He may have been more pro-Sioux than is sometimes alleged. Schurz was not able to change very much.
When American involvement was sending waves of hope through the camps, a Sahrawi pal named Fadel asked me, “You think we will see your Marines?” The Baker plan was big news in the region, and there was talk among savvy, educated Sahrawis like Fadel of “the American card.”
I advised against that. “It is not wise. Our foreign policy types know the Moroccans, and our defense establishment supplies them with arms. Israel has unofficial relations with them. If the balloon goes up again around here and they step in to help the makhzen,” I said, using the old word for Morocco’s ruling group, “that would be a royal cock-up for sure, and no pun. Better get the Israelis to help you, though I think in the circumstances, they will not see the percentage. Nor, to be honest, will your leaders, with all due respect.”
Fadel had left home to study and then returned — home is home — to work in what served as their foreign service, guiding humanitarian tourists and journalists.
“Well, Mr. Baker tried,” he said, diplomatic.
I mentioned the Navajo wind whisperers and also I managed to remember a few lines from Johnny Cash’s “Ira Hayes,” about the Pima Indian who puts aside the white man’s greed, joins the Marines, raises the flag at Iwo Jima, comes home, and dies of alcohol in a ditch.
“Someone told me your President Kennedy said life is not fair,” Fadel said. He really was polite, thoughtful. Or maybe it had to do with tribal hospitality and he would not complain to a guest.
We changed the topic; I think we discussed the Kashmir question. Or maybe we traded music notes:
The young men, the old men, the guilty and the innocent
Bled red blood and chilled alike with fears
The red men, the white men, no fight every took this land
So don’t raise the dust when you pass here
They’re sleeping and in my keeping are these Apache tears.