Palestinians light candles to honor the late South African leader Nelson Mandela as they mourn in Gaza City, Gaza, Dec. 8, 2013.
LEFT: Marwan Barghouti in Tel Aviv District Court on the opening day of his trial, Aug. 14, 2002; RIGHT: Nelson Mandela is released from prison, Feb. 11, 1990.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 21, 1983, Page 7
Conflict in Northwest Africa: The Western Sahara Dispute
By John Damis. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1983. 196 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Les Janka
What a joy it is to read a book that answers virtually all the questions a reasonable reader (or an unreasonable reviewer) might have upon picking it up. While a text of only 148 pages cannot pretend to be the definitive work on a problem as complex as the Western Sahara dispute, anyone but the most devout specialist will finish John Damis's book feeling that all the relevant ground has been covered masterfully.
Dr. Damis, Associate Professor at Portland State University, quite properly introduces his work with the observation that the history of international relations is "punctuated with examples of local festering wars that, left unresolved, eventually escalated into regional—and occasionally international—conflicts." Despite the geostrategic importance of Northwest Africa to American interests and the political tensions the Sahara conflict has engendered between various Western allies, the conflict has throughout the last decade never been more than a second rate sideshow for American diplomacy and journalism.
As a framework for analyzing the background to the Western Sahara dispute, Damis builds on three perceptive premises. The first is that the struggle for control of the territory abandoned by Spain in 1975 is part of a larger geopolitical struggle for influence in Northwest Africa between the competing and antagonistic political and economic systems of Morocco and Algeria. A settlement of the Saharan conflict thus lies in the resolution of a broader set of problems that transcend both the specifics of the territorial questions and the attitudes and aspirations of the regimes currently in power in Rabat and Algiers.
Damis's second premise is that unlike many national liberation movements, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Sakiet al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario) draws its ability to sustain an effective struggle only from heavy outside support and conditions created by Moroccan-Algerian regional antagonisms. Despite a genuine core of highly motivated Saharan nationalists, the Polisario, with no material resources of its own, could not survive if Algerian and Libyan military and economic assistance were withdrawn.
His third underlying premise is that outside powers have only marginal influence on the course of the conflict; it is not a proxy war being fought by local forces on behalf of the superpowers. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union have their interests in particular and different outcomes, but neither has much to gain from an escalation of the military conflict and, therefore, both superpowers have demonstrated restraint in directly supporting their respective allies in the dispute.
The strengths of Damis's work are in its rare combination of comprehensiveness and conciseness as well as his dispassionate clarity of writing. An opening chapter outlines in broad strokes the basic features of the land, population and historical background of the Western Sahara. Here, as throughout the book, the author's solid command of his subject matter and of his purpose helps him give the reader just as much detail as one needs or probably wants to know, without a burden of sociological or historical minutiae.
Damis then proceeds to describe with more detail the positions and interests of the four major parties to the conflict: Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and the Polisario Front. Of particular value here is a debunking of the "phosphate factor"—as evidenced in the repetitive journalistic descriptions of Morocco's basic motivation as seizing the "phosphate-rich" Sahara. A solid third chapter analyzes at length the evolution of the Saharan conflict since the Spanish withdrawal took place.
Evolution of U.S. Policy
Chapter four follows with succinct descriptions of the roles of the major third parties to the dispute. It contains a careful and useful assessment of the evolution of American policy towards the conflict as Washington has tried to balance its clear interests in the survival of Morocco's King Hassan with a desire to avoid entanglement in a conflict in which undue exertion of limited American influence entails costs to larger regional relations. In his concluding chapter, Professor Damis provides a genuine service by analyzing previous attempts to reach a settlement and offering a thoughtful and thought-provoking approach of his own that stresses the necessity of having a regional context for any viable solution—although he does not define the means for getting negotiations under way.
In sum, Professor Damis gives us a most valuable and readable contribution to a subject too long neglected by American scholarship. If such a book had been available in 1979, perhaps we might have avoided not only a great deal of difficulty in U.S.-Moroccan relations, but especially much unnecessary ideological posturing by Congressional personalities more interested in self-promotion than advancement of American interests through peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.
Les Janka was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East and African Affairs, 1976-78.