Two months ago it seemed that a breakthrough in the 10-year-old war in the Western Sahara might finally be in the offing. At its summer meeting, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted a referendum formula that was endorsed by Rabat and the Polisario Front - acronym for the Algerian- and Libyan-backed guerrilla group contesting Morocco's claim over this barren, but phosphate-rich territory the size of Colorado. The relief at the OAU, however, was tempered by memories of past formulas frustrated largely by Morocco's reluctance to negotiate the specifics of a referendum. With talks on its implementation due to commence soon, United States support for the latest OAU initiative could prevent it from meeting a similar fate.
Recent American policy toward the Western Sahara has contributed to the conflict rather than to its resolution. In the wake of the Shah's demise, the Reagan administration - concerned with the possible loss of American bases in a Socialist Spain - lost little time in turning Morocco into a symbol of America's renewed willingness to stand by beleaguered friends. Military aid to Rabat rose from $30 million at the end of the Carter term to $50 million in the first year of the Reagan administration. The following year the President's $100 million request was halved by a Congress disturbed by our escalating involvement in the conflict. While the Reagan administration has severed contacts with the Polisario, American military officials regularly visit Moroccan installations in the Western Sahara, which are enclosed by a wall built largely with American technology. For fiscal year 1984, President Reagan has again asked for $100 million in military aid to Morocco.
Increased US support for Rabat has hardened the ''basic reluctance to embrace an internationally administered referendum of self-determination'' that was perceived by a Staff Study Mission of the House Foreign Affairs Committee during recent conversations with Moroccan officials. In the past Morocco balked at any referendum formula that also included the Polisario. It insisted on keeping its army in the Western Sahara while Moroccan officials conducted the balloting, and demanded that - instead of choosing between independence and integration - voters be asked merely to ''confirm'' their ''allegiance'' to the Moroccan crown. When combined with the Polisario's insistence on prior Moroccan recognition of its Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and the parties' disagreement over the number of eligible voters in the territory, the probability that they would agree to a referendum proposal appeared slim. Yet, with the notable exception of the inclusion of the Polisario, the resolution adopted by the OAU weeks ago failed to address these differences, evidently hoping that direct negotiations between the adversaries would lead to a compromise on the details of the referendum.
Given the gulf separating the Moroccan and Polisario positions, Washington's support will prove crucial to the implementation of the latest OAU formula. Opportunities for compromise do exist. Unlike the Polisario, for example, Algeria reportedly would tolerate a reduced number of Moroccan troops in the Western Sahara while a referendum took place. If the Reagan administration were to condition American aid on bona fide negotiation efforts on the part of Rabat, or otherwise induce Morocco to adopt a more flexible position on other issues - such as the form of the question to be asked - Algeria might prevail on its protege to accept a reduced Moroccan military presence in the region alongside an international peace-keeping force.
American support for a referendum would not only help remove the major obstacle to reconciliation between Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, but would also further American strategic interests by promoting the stability of the Moroccan crown. The Western Sahara conflict absorbs nearly 40 percent of Morocco's budget and perpetuates an unemployment rate that claims one out of three adult males. It also fosters rumblings within Moroccan military circles, faced with the prospects of a protracted military stalemate.
While Morocco is undoubtedly a valuable American military ally, its importance should not overshadow other important considerations. The access and transit facilities granted by Rabat to the US in 1981 reportedly may not be used against countries friendly to Morocco. In addition, King Hassan's ability to support American initiatives in the Middle East is constrained by his dependence on Saudi Arabia. By contrast, although political differences between Algeria and the US do exist, Algeria remains one of our principal suppliers of natural gas and last year imported twice as much from the US as did Rabat.
More than any quantifiable strategic consideration in the region, the most important American interest at stake here is the US's reputation as a beacon for human rights and staunch advocate of a people's right to choose their future. As was noted by the Staff Study Mission's report, however, the Reagan administration's policies in the Western Sahara ''leave the impression that the US pays only lip service to the OAU's recommendation for self-determination.'' At a time when a breakthrough looms in the Western Sahara, the moment has come for the US to help implement the latest OAU referendum proposal instead of further fanning the flames of conflict.