Most Americans have probably never heard of the Western Sahara. If the name of this Colorado-sized territory in northwest Africa evokes any image at all, it is likely to be one of nomads with their tents and camels against a background of blinding sunlight and endless sand engaged in the ancient and timeless confrontation between man and nature. During a visit to the region last summer, I often wondered at the contemporary international significance of this vast and empty-looking land with its parching 120° days, fierce sandstorms, and blue-robed, nomadic inhabitants.
Yet the Western Sahara is the scene of a major four-year-old war for national independence waged by Algerian-backed Polisario Front guerrillas against Morocco and, until recently, Mauritania-a struggle which now threatens to escalate into a large-scale regional and even international conflict. In that struggle, an old friend of the United States, the Kingdom of Morocco, seeks American military support for a cause which the overwhelming majority of countries in the world oppose as a contradiction of the very principle of national self-determination. Most important, perhaps, the Moroccan request poses anew the fundamental question raised by our experiences in Angola, Iran and Nicaragua-whether U.S. policy must always accommodate our friends even when they cling to ill-conceived or untenable positions, or whether our interests are better served by adapting to compelling regional circumstances.
At the moment, the Administration's policy toward the Western Sahara appears to be swinging toward a "globalist" approach which emphasizes the implications of the conflict for our reputation as a reliable ally rather than the intrinsic merits of the dispute itself. It has proposed, in spite of the reported opposition of the State Department and skepticism of the Central Intelligence Agency, to abandon its existing policy of selling Morocco arms only for the defense of its own internationally recognized boundaries. Instead, we would be providing King Hassan II with new weapons suitable for counterinsurgency warfare in the disputed area-particularly OV-10 "Bronco" armed reconnaissance aircraft and attack helicopters embellished by
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