Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 29 March 2007

New Dimension of Ethio-Eritrean Dispute and US Relations


By Kumsa Aba Gerba

Background of US Horn Policy

March 28, 2007 — US relations with Middle East and Horn of African countries have seldom been about shared ideology, religion or democratic political climate. Relations or lack there of, have rather been based on derivatives of two major factors. These factors are the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Petro-Politics for an unimpeded flow of oil from the region. There is no question that these two factors have paramount global economic and political implications that require intricate diplomacy. It is thus quite understandable that the United States has to maintain pragmatic relations, often at a very high cost.

Ethiopia, unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia, never had an overriding strategic advantage or a clear and present liability to the United States foreign policy. Thus Ethio-American relations have never been based on long term strategic interests. US policy has always been fluctuating as the weather in Washington. When US interest looks best served by Ethiopia, relations get warm and even start to heat up and get as sticky and humid as a summer in the Potomac. Whereas, when the US finds no value added dividend from Ethiopia, the relations get cold and become icy so much so references like ‘fragile state’ have at times been attributed towards Ethiopia by some senior policy advisors.

On the other hand, the US relationship with Egypt has been an unyielding and unbending pact that has not wavered no matter which party has been in charge in US government, no matter how much the internal political repression has escalated with in Egypt or no matter what position Egypt has taken with its neighbors and the Nile Basin countries. Since Anwar Al-Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David agreement in 1978, the balance of relative peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the taming of Palestinian issue have been maintained by a long standing pact that costs the United States billions of dollars in aid. The longevity of this pact is also attributed by the continuity of Sadat’s policy by his protégé Hosni Mubarak.

As only a decade and half phenomena, US relations with Eritrea have been as frenetic as it gets. Essentially the United States has never been able to think of Eritrea apart from Ethiopia and still fails to see the viability of an Eritrean State on its own. Even contemporary US policy makers want to see some sort of Ethio-Eritrean coexistence in some form of shared economy, sea outlet and other resources.

After the Ethio-Eritrean bloody ‘border conflict’ the US-Eritrean relationship has been carefully handled, even when the Eritrean regime went out of its way to infuriate the United States and the United Nations, by dismissing diplomats and publicly lambasting their policies. The United States coddling of the Eritrean regime is entrenched in an intriguing State Department policy since Eritrean independence architected by Herman Cohen and later followed by Suzan Rice.

The perception (albeit real) that Eritrea is the only non-Arab country on the Red Sea coast is a major factor for US policy makers. Consequently the perception that Eritrea is the only predominantly non-Muslim country along the Red Sea coast (with a major Christian population in Eritrea’s highlands) is considered as one of the aspects for the empirical US policy. Thus appeasement and coddling rather than castigation has so far been the way the United States deals with the Eritrean regime.

Beyond Proxy wars

The on-going military standoff between Eritrea and Ethiopia has created a precarious economic and social crisis with in Eritrea. Eritrea has been playing as a war making machine in the Horn by designing the germination of various proxy armed organizations. Eritrea’s anguish and frustration about the unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia has made the Horn of Africa seem more unstable and a potential crisis hotspot than it really is. To perpetuate such a perception, Eritrea has to torment its arch foe Ethiopia in various ways, by dispatching its proxy rebels and terror groups. However the acts of waging proxy wars against Ethiopia using Somalia’s UIC as well as OLF and ONLF fronts faced a fatal blow after the demise of the UIC last December.

Lately the British and Ethiopian hostages’ scenario was a twisted turn of strategy by the Eritrean regime. Yes the event got the attention of the global community if that was the goal by itself. However the political and diplomatic continuum that follows the dramatic event and the intentions of the Eritrean government are still intriguing.

In the first place the British intelligence knew and located that the captives were detained inside a fort on the Eritrean side the Afar Depression, using its spy satellites. At the early stage of the hostage crisis, the British government dispatched a band rescue commandoes to Mekele, while negotiating with the Eritrean regime for a peaceful resolution. Finally the British captives were then released while the Ethiopian are still kept behind in Eritrea by an alleged guerrilla organization of the Afars.

The Afar depression is the roughest and hottest part of this planet, with no water and shelter what so ever, virtually impossible to sustain a mobile guerrilla unit in the area. It would thus be insane to imagine that any guerrilla group would operate in this part of Eritrea, other than a well supplied and fortressed standing army. Even if there are Afar guerrilla operatives in the region, Eritrea’s actions did add to sensitivity of the global community that Eritrea is aiding and abetting terrorist forces. Consequently the mention and linking of Eritrea with terrorism has become an open dialogue within various US policy makers, unlike a diplomatic hush-hush of the past.

Concerns on the stability of Eritrea

Notwithstanding the perception of the United States about Eritrea’s strategic location on the Red Sea coast as the only non-Arab and predominantly non-Muslim country, the US seems to be carefully handling the Eritrean regime due to the explosive nature of the power structure with in the Eritrean government.

The Iraqi situation has thought both the US government and the Eritrean regime quite a lesson. The fact that Iraq became unstable and ungovernable after the fall of Saddam Hussein is because Saddam had eradicated every viable force that would unite the country and take over after his fall. President Isayas of Eritrea has also systematically eliminated any viable person, any secular group or force that may replace him. He has made sure that there is no substitute for him, in an event that he is taken out of power. He knows that the Americans know that if he goes, they will have to deal with a lowland Muslim control of power that would rule Eritrea like the Sudan. President Isayas reminds the US, in a subtle way, without him there will be an Iraq-like or Darfur-like sectarian violence in Eritrea. He shows his Christian highlander card and he lets the US know that he is the better malevolence they need to deal with in an almost Arab controlled Red Sea coastline. By the way the anxiety of the Ethiopian government in avoiding a push to rid the Eritrean regime by force is probably based on a similar fear of having to deal with a post Isayas crisis in Eritrea that may be too chaotic to handle.

Anomalies of US Policy in the Horn

There are two US diplomatic missions in Addis Ababa. One is the United States Embassy to Ethiopia headed by Donald Yamamoto and the other is the Embassy to the African Union headed by Cindy Corville. The protocol seems to be that Mr.Yamamoto deals with bilateral diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, while Ms. Corville deals with multilateral relations with members of the African Union.

Mr Yamomto knows the region very well and he has a personal acquaintance with leaders of governments in the area. He was an ambassador to Djibouti in the 1980’s before he became the first US diplomat and Charge d’Affairs to Eritrea. Prior to his current position he was the deputy undersecretary of African Affairs in the State Department. On his current position as the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Mr. Yamomto seems to handle his diplomacy quite well, following the footsteps of his predecessors like Vicky Huddlstone, Aurilia Braezil, David Sheen and Tibor Nagi. His decorum and respect to Ethiopians and his sensitivity to internal as well as regional politics is very professional.

On the other hand Ms. Corville has become a lightening rod within the diplomatic community due to her coarse and uncanny approach to the Ethio-Eritrean relations. Her previous position was a special assistant on African Affairs to the National Security Agency at the White House. Her position has for a while been clear and precise that Ethiopia is the villain and that Eritrea is a victim. Ms. Corville has made the boundary dispute a personal and emotional issue.

Ms. Corville’s stand that Ethiopia has to be forced to unconditionally accept the ruling of the boundary commission and without any further dialogue or delay has not been disguised by a customary and professional diplomatic discourse. Recently she has been campaigning openly and lobbying with fervor the diplomatic community tirelessly. Nervous diplomatic sources that wish not to be identified said that she is actively pressing them for a stern measure against Ethiopia.

What drives Ms. Corville to be emotionally and irrationally immersed in such pro Eritrean position is speculative but her political schooling may not be from the diplomatic handbooks of State Departments. Speculatively, her opinion may be shaped by Eritrean lobbies like Jack Abramoff who is now in prison for campaign violations and frauds.

From the Unites States perspective, Ms. Corville’s actions may be perceived as stepping on Mr. Yamamoto’s toes and contravening her diplomatic scope of responsibility. From the Ethiopian government’s perspective she may be perceived as a national security risk with utter contempt to Ethiopians. If her lobby among diplomats against Ethiopia continues, the Ethiopian government may declare her as a Persona-Non-Grata. Such an action would dramatically and adversely affect the Ethio-American relations that both countries would not afford to have happen. As a result the State Department may have to move quietly and heave her out from her passionately entangled state of affairs.

The author is an Ethiopian born; he is a graduate student of International Relations in USA. He can be reached at abagerba@yahoo.com

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