213. Memorandum From William Quandt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • The Western Sahara Conflict

The conflict between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara is not a high-priority foreign policy concern at present, but we have no interest in seeing the tension continue. Morocco is clearly unhappy with the drain on its resources required by the fight against evasive Polisario guerrillas, and Algeria has hinted that it wants a face-saving settlement. It is not inconceivable that both parties may turn to us to provide good offices.

Background to the Dispute

You are no doubt aware that Morocco maintained historic claims to all of Mauritania up until 1970, and to parts of Algeria until 1972. (These latter are still unsettled.) As Foreign Minister Laraki noted to you, Morocco does not subscribe to the OAU principle of inviolability of the frontiers inherited from the colonial period.2

The Moroccan claim to the Western Sahara is not overwhelmingly impressive, but the alternative of permitting a small nomadic population of some 70–80,000 to exercise the right of self-determination has not exactly caught fire either. We need not, however, accept as truth the version of history that the Moroccans have been promoting.

Despite what Laraki said to you, the division of the area between Morocco and Mauritania was quite arbitrary, as the division line shows. It was not in any precise manner based on tribal allegiances. (See maps at Tab A.)3 In any case, nomadic tribal allegiances have not been very stable, and the dominant sentiment is one of fierce independence and disregard for such niceties as frontiers.

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Tom Franck’s article at Tab B summarizes the main stages leading to partition of the Western Sahara.4 The Moroccans try to buttress their case by legal arguments, but the simple fact is that they annexed the territory by force. Some of the population no doubt welcomed them; others fled, and now live in refugee camps in Algeria. Polisario, which traces its origins to 1968, managed to win Algerian backing, and decided to fight. Algeria’s motives are no doubt mixed, but Boumediene was clearly angered at the way in which Hassan outmaneuvered him, and he sees the Polisario, which consists of good fighters who know the territory, as a low-cost way of keeping Morocco off balance. The danger, of course, is that the fighting will escalate to the Morocco-Algeria level.

Like most observers, I see little chance that the Moroccan fait accompli can be reversed. Nor do I feel that it necessarily should be, although I find the legal pretensions of the Moroccan case a bit hard to take. (I’m sure the Somalis will find comparably strong arguments if and when they annex Ogaden, Djibouti and parts of Kenya.)

Before King Hassan arrives for his December 7–8 visit, it might be worth considering whether we should offer our good offices to reduce the tension between Morocco and Algeria. The most that we could expect Hassan to concede would be a limited degree of autonomy for the western Sahara and reintegration of some Polisario leaders into Morocco. Some symbolic act constituting self-determination—voting for the regional assembly—would then have to take place. By now, that would probably give Boumediene enough to allow him to disengage as gracefully as possible from an overextended position. Unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict on which we spend all our time, this one is not vital to world peace. But it might still be resolved, and at very little cost to us in time or effort. The Moroccans claim that there is nothing to be decided, but they do seem worried about developments. So the time may be ripe for getting beyond the absurd legal arguments about who is right and who is wrong, and trying to find a solution to a problem which needlessly distracts Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria from more serious issues of development.5

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 87, Spanish Sahara: 5–12/77. Confidential. Sent for information. Inderfurth initialed the memorandum. A copy was sent to Richardson.
  2. No record of a meeting between Brzezinski and Laraki during Laraki’s September 12–13 visit to Washington was found. Vance met with Laraki on September 13; see footnote 2, Document 152.
  3. Tab A is attached but not printed.
  4. Tab B, entitled “The Spanish Sahara and Portuguese Timor as Precedent,” is attached but not printed.
  5. Brzezinski highlighted the first two sentences of this paragraph, placed a question mark in the left-hand margin, and wrote: “How about leaving this to France?”