Last September, shortly after Morocco's King Hassan II shocked Washington by signing a unity treaty with Libya, an American diplomat pulled a visiting journalist aside. "This time, the king's gone too far," he said. "He's stepping over the cliff."
Washington, which wants to isolate Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, felt betrayed by its closest Arab ally. There was even talk on Capitol Hill that Ambassador Joseph V. Reed Jr.'s job was in danger because Hassan's move had caught the U.S. Embassy in Rabat by surprise.
"Who's this ambassador who presided over this foreign-policy disaster?" one congressman asked. Others suggested that the Reagan Administration should punish Hassan by reducing or suspending U.S. military and economic assistance, currently running at $138 million a year.
However, as often happens, people were underestimating the king. The evidence now suggests that he has managed to neutralize his antagonists in Libya without jeopardizing his relations with the United States and that what Reed presides over is not a disaster but a continuing example of unusual American diplomatic success in the Arab world.
The "union" treaty with Libya is designed to lead to a vague federation allowing for economic, cultural and political cooperation. Libya has lent Morocco $100 million--the terms of the loan were not announced--but otherwise progress toward integration has been slow. Some diplomats believe there is less to the treaty than meets the eye.
Hassan had hoped that Libya would find jobs for many thousands of unemployed Moroccans, but the number of Moroccans working in Libya has increased by only 4,000--to 11,000--since September. Not a drop of Libyan oil has reached Morocco, Western diplomats say, despite an agreement that calls for Libya to exchange crude oil for Morocco's refined products. And Hassan has yet to make his long-expected trip to Tripoli.
As part of the deal with Kadafi, Hassan agreed to end his support for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. Libyan dissidents in Cairo said that Moroccan security agents handed over one of the front's top officials, Nuri Hamida Fallah, to Libyan officials after Kadafi's visit to Morocco in August, 1984. Fallah's fate is unknown.
Kadafi Keeps Word
Western military analysts say that Kadafi, in turn, has kept his word to Hassan and cut off support for the Polisario guerrillas fighting Morocco for control of the Western Sahara.
This action leaves Algeria to carry the Polisario burden alone. It has put Morocco in such a strong military position that Hassan in March made his first tour ever of the front line, participating in Friday prayers and making a symbolic expression of sovereignty over the region.
"I was there, and when I saw the crowds, the reception the king got, the Moroccan flags, I'm not embarrassed to say I cried," said Mohammed Benquna, a Rabat publisher. "I am convinced this is the start of a new era, for Morocco, for the Sahara."
U.S. Aid Unabated
At the same time, the Reagan Administration has signaled its intention to continue to honor the Treaty of Friendship signed in 1786 between Morocco and the United States, the longest uninterrupted treaty in American history. U.S. assistance has not diminished, and high-level U.S. delegations shuttle in and out of the Casablanca airport with regularity.
To make sure Morocco gets a continued sympathetic hearing in the United States, Hassan has hired the Washington public relations firm Gray & Co.
The clearest signal that the Administration recognizes Morocco's strategic importance and its historical pro-Western ties came a few days before Hassan's Saharan trip.
Three American Envoys
At the Marrakech celebration of the 24th anniversary of Hassan's coronation, the United States was the only country to be represented by three presidential envoys: Ambassador Reed, then-U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and retired Army Lt. Gen. Vernon A. Walters, Kirkpatrick's successor at the United Nations.
Morocco has long felt that it deserves to be rewarded with greater American generosity. Officials in Rabat point out that the $45-million U.S. military assistance program is hardly sufficient to provide spare parts and munitions for its American-made arms.
Unlike many Third World nations, though, Morocco has given, not sold, its friendship to the United States and has not demanded reciprocity for making decisions favorable to U.S. interests.
Biggest Radio Transmitter
Among the tangible results of such American diplomatic success here is the construction in Tangier of the largest radio transmitter in the non-communist world. Morocco will have no control over the Voice of America facility, which will be used, in part, for broadcasts to the Soviet Union. The $175-million project will take five years to complete.
When needed for a Middle East emergency, Morocco has given U.S. planes and ships temporary use of its military facilities at no cost. It allows unrestricted port visits by U.S. vessels, including those with nuclear arms, and conducts about 30 joint military exercises a year with U.S. forces on Moroccan soil.
Hassan also has played an important role in the past as a behind-the-scenes regional peace broker, helping to arrange, among other events, the secret meetings between top Egyptian and Israeli officials that led to President Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977.
The king's diplomatic prominence, however, has been diminished by Morocco's withdrawal from the Organization of African Unity last November over the Saharan issue and by its inactivity in the Middle East peace process. His major concern now appears to be the Western Sahara.
Hassan told journalists in Marrakech after the coronation anniversary celebrations that he intends to spend $1 billion over the next five years to re-equip his 150,000-member army--a sharp increase from $700 million a year he now spends on defense.
He also said he will ask the United Nations to organize a referendum to determine whether the 150,000 Saharan residents want to be independent or remain part of Morocco.
"I am comfortable in my rocking chair because international law is on my side," he said.
Hassan, 55, believes--as do Western diplomats--that the residents would vote overwhelmingly against independence. And he is confident that the 950-mile-long sand wall--dotted with mines, gun positions and electronic devices--that Morocco has constructed along the Algerian border and around the Saharan population centers has, for the most part, kept the Polisario guerrillas just where he wants them--inside Algeria.