Butterfly Effect: The Saharan Quicksand Biden Can't Avoid

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Butterfly Effect: The Saharan Quicksand Biden Can't Avoid

By Charu Sudan Kasturi


President Trump's recent deals with Morocco and Sudan are a lose-lose legacy Biden will inherit.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Is a lame duck really a lame duck if he can kick up a desert storm for the not-lame duck about to replace him? If that reads like a tongue twister, it’s because the matter at hand is indeed a lot more complex than it might seem — and it could tie America’s relations with North Africa up in knots for years to come.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, the lame duck here is President Donald Trump, the not-lame duck is President-elect Joe Biden, and the tongue twister is about two bold but dangerous moves made by Trump over the past couple of months.

Last week, the Trump administration announced a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Morocco that it brokered. Under the deal, the North African nation will normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Washington recognizing Morocco’s claims over the disputed region of Western Sahara. The pact comes two months after America mediated another landmark agreement to start diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan. There, the U.S. has removed Sudan from a blacklist it maintains of nations it accuses of supporting terrorism. America’s changed position means Sudan can now attract global investments more easily.

A win-win, right? After all, what could be wrong with peace agreements? Now, as someone who was once quizzed by a U.S. visa officer about my middle name (no, I have no connection with the country of Sudan), I’m all for improved relations between Khartoum and Washington. But if I were on Biden’s team, I’d be worried.

That’s because Trump’s moves with Morocco and Sudan amount to a trap — whether set consciously or not — that the incoming president will find hard to avoid.


A Moroccan army vehicle passes wreckage in Guerguerat, in the southern extremity of Western Sahara.

Source FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty

Morocco has effectively controlled Western Sahara, a strip of territory along Africa’s Atlantic coast, for the past 41 years, and has half a million troops stationed there. But the U.N. and most in the international community — including the U.S. until now — have never recognized that occupation as legal, and continue to treat the democratic freedom movement of the Saharwis as legitimate.

By breaking with that global consensus, America now stands on the side of an occupation force. Of course, the U.S. has backed all manner of dubious regimes and their excesses in the past, but there was usually a significant quid pro quo. In this case, Morocco has only agreed to officially sign onto something it was already doing: maintaining openly cordial relations with Israel. For years, Morocco has encouraged Israeli tourists to visit the country, showcasing its ancient Jewish history. Their citizens can travel to each other’s countries on their national passports, no questions asked. Morocco, though, has now secured Washington’s support of its occupation of Western Sahara — something it had neither formally nor informally done previously.

And what of Sudan? One of the unwritten conditions for that deal involves America passing a law through Congress effectively barring families of victims of 9/11 from suing Khartoum for compensation for sheltering Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Reports this week suggest that the Trump administration has offered to pay up to $850 million to those families in exchange for the passage of the law required to save the Sudan deal. So far, lawyers for the families and Congressional Republicans have opposed the administration’s proposal.

These are tense — and entirely avoidable — diplomatic and domestic challenges that Biden will inherit when he takes office on Jan. 20. In keeping with recent presidential history, he could simply walk up to television cameras and declare that he’s withdrawing from America’s commitments under the deals with Sudan and Morocco.

But that would mean an instant death for those agreements and the wrath of Israel, a close U.S. ally already wary about the Biden administration’s promise to reenter the nuclear deal with Iran.

Sticking with the deals and trying to adhere to them would on the one hand signal to the world that they can trust America not to turn 180 degrees on foreign policy every four years. But on the other hand, it would upset America’s closest allies in Europe who have objected to the Morocco deal and disillusion those around the world hoping for a fresh start under Biden. It would also saddle the incoming president with deals that will ultimately limit America’s strategic choices in North Africa.

Simply put, it’s Saharan quicksand. How Biden negotiates it will be an early sign of how bold he will be with his diplomacy.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.