Our Man in Ethiopia
(September, 2012) There's plenty of time for game-changers and October surprises to sway the course of the presidential campaign on the way to November. We're still trying to figure out what exactly this election is about, as can be seen by the ease with which the old lineup of "Culture War" issues have managed to hijack what the Romney camp
surely wanted to be a one-issue election on the economy. One thing that seems clear, though, is that foreign policy is unlikely to play a major role in this election cycle. While this is understandable, it is also unfortunate, as this will be the first election since the Arab Spring, and our country sorely needs the opportunity to think through the lessons of the past year
and a half on our security policy.
The death of a minor modern dictator in Africa last month served as a fresh reminder of how the USís aspirations to be a strong moral force in the world all too frequently clash with the strategic necessities of its fight against terrorism. Meles Zenawi, who died late Monday at the age of 57 after a prolonged and mysterious illness, was in his third
term as Prime Minister of Ethiopia and had held a firm grip on the country for more than 20 years. He won his most recent election in a landslide victory in 2010 through coercion of voters and intimidation against the opposition, all orchestrated by his ruling Ethiopian Peopleís Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party.
Zenawi's record on human rights and democracy was quite poor. Ethiopia declined from a "Partly Free" ranking to "Not Free" in Freedom Houseís 2011 Freedom in the World survey, largely due to the undemocratic election in 2010. The report also cites restrictions of academic freedom, suppression of free public discourse through internal surveillance of
dissent, denial of the freedom of assembly, and forced child labor, among other issues. Thor Halvorsson and Alex Gladstein, writing for Forbes, put it succinctly: "Zenawi built a totalitarian state, guided by Marxist-Leninism, complete with a cult of personality and zero tolerance for dissent."
Zenawi prohibited a free press, using intimidation and harassment against media outlets, usually by naming them as terrorists and convicting them under strict anti-terror laws. Halvorsson and Gladstein note that "More journalists were exiled from Ethiopia in the last decade than any other country on earth." The country ranks 120th out of 182 countries
in Transparency Internationalís Corruption Perceptions Index, and remains one of the world's poorest countries.
Considering all of this, it may have come as a shock when upon Zenawi's death, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice took to Twitter to venerate the late tyrant, writing that she was "Profoundly saddened by the untimely passing of my close friend and cherished colleague, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia." President Obama issued a
statement the same day, saying that Meles "Deserves recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopiaís development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopiaís poor." The statement continued: "I am also grateful for Prime Minister Melesís service for peace and security in Africa, his contributions to the African Union, and his voice for Africa on the world
stage. On behalf of the American people, I offer my condolences to Prime Minister Melesí family and to the people of Ethiopia on this untimely loss, and confirm the U.S. Governmentís commitment to our partnership with Ethiopia."
Why such warm and fuzzy public statements for a dictator who denied essential freedoms to his 93 million countrymen? It comes down to US strategic foreign policy priorities. Ethiopia is cursed by being landlocked and surrounded by bad neighbors, including Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. In 1992 the US began to cultivate a development and aid relationship
with Meles, but after September 11 and the spread of the Global War on Terror, he was elevated as a key ally for regional security on the Horn of Africa, and the cash floodgates flew open. In 2010 alone, the US sent over $1 billion to Ethiopia in combined foreign aid and military assistance, according to The Wall Street Journal. In return, Meles helped capture terrorists and
even invaded Somalia to help overturn an Islamist government.
But our aid to the regime to help defend US citizens from terrorism took a toll on the Ethiopian people. Freedom House sees political rights and civil liberties on the decline Ďdue to the governmentís increased use of antiterrorism legislation to target political opponents and a decision by the parliamentís lower house to include a leading opposition
movement in its list of terrorist organizations.í The US isnít just turning a blind eye to the democracy and human rights situation in the country, but is in fact actively contributing to the political mechanism that has been used to oppress opposition by helping to fund Ethiopiaís anti-terrorism efforts and lending credence to its activities.
Strategically, all of this makes sense, as the ruling regime looks like it will remain stable at least for the next couple years until elections in 2015. Unfortunately this only amounts to supporting the USís short-term security goals while shelving the immediate and long-term concerns for the well-being of the Ethiopian people.
Personally, the only reason I knew Zenawi's name is that a group of Ethiopian expatriates showed up in Thurmont this past May to demonstrate against his participation in the G-8 Summit at Camp David. Their anger was aimed not only at the Prime Minister, but also at President Obama and the ongoing US policy of backing their authoritarian government.
That scenario should sound uncomfortably familiar after the Arab Spring. Our leaders either havenít learned the lessons of placing short-term strategic interests above long-term humanitarian goals, or have calculated that it is still preferable to live with the consequences (after all, it's just the poor foreigners who really suffer). This has been the
status quo for decades, though, and if none of our leaders in either party are going to ask, then someday the American voters will have to speak up on whether this is sound, morally acceptable foreign policy.
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