Reagan eyes air bases; Why send US arms to Morocco?
The Reagan administration is steadily tightening its links with the kingdom of Morocco.
In contrast with the more cautious backing the Carter administration gave to Morocco's King Hassan II, the Reagan administration has placed itself squarely behind the King in his struggle with Algerian and Libyan-supported guerrilla forces in the Western Sahara.
Following a White House meeting and luncheon with King Hassan on May 19, President Reagan called the King ''a firm friend of the United States.'' It is clear that the two leaders see eye to eye on a wide range of issues and that the King expects increasing support from the US. Hassan shares Reagan's view that the most important threats to peace and stability in the Middle East come from the Soviet Union and Soviet allies, such as Libya.
In a litle publicized move disclosed in congressional testimony two months ago, the US dropped its previous insistence that American arms sales to Morocco depend on Moroccan efforts to show progress toward a negotiated settlement of the Saharan conflicts.
At the same time, Reagan administration officials insist that US support for a negotiated settlement remains unchanged. They argue, as did Carter administration officials, that no military solution to the Saharan conflict is possible and that the conflict could become a tinderbox for wider instability in the North African region. The officials also recognize that the war is draining Morocco's economy. A nation of about 20 million people, Morocco has been hard hit in recent years by droughts and a drop in West European purchases of its phosphates.
Administration officials are currently discussing with the Moroccans possible American access to a Moroccan Air Force base, for emergency purposes, should the Soviet Union threaten the stability of the Gulf farther to the east.
Critics of Reagan administration policy toward Morocco in the US Congress, meanwhile, have charged that the administration may end up fanning the flames of war in the Sahara. As they see it, the administration has shifted from a policy of neutrality to a definite tilt toward Morocco, which might discourage efforts toward a negotiated settlement. They note that the administration requested a tripling of military sales credits to Morocco and has indicated a desire to train Moroccan mobile commando units.
The administration asked for about $100 million in military sales credits to Morocco for this year, but the House Foreign Affairs committee halved the amount. The committee said the US should not provide Morocco with training for ''offensive counter-insurgency military activities'' in the Western Sahara.
In a report last November, the Washington Post said that Francis J. (Bing) West Jr., US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, had suggested to the head of the Moroccan Air Force that Moroccan armed forces shift to more mobile and aggressive tactics.
In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has justified aid to Morocco in part because of what he described as the introduction of ''highly sophisticated, extremely dangerous weaponry'' into the hands of the Polisario guerillas fighting the Moroccans in the Western Sahara.
In a briefing for reporters on May 17, a senior administration official said that those weapons were Soviet SA-6 surface-to-air missiles. Spokesmen for the Polisario forces have denied that they are using SA-6s.
King Hassan ruled out negotiations with the Polisario. He indicated that Morocco, by agreeing to a ceasefire and internationally supervised referendum, had gone as far as it could go toward a settlement.
In other developments, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, has charged that Moroccan authorities were breaking international agreements as well as their own laws by holding political prisoners incommunicado and by torturing many.