Dan Simpson: U.S. should avoid conflict in Ethiopia
(post-gazette)—Ethiopia has once again become a bone of contention in northeast Africa.
This time it seems to be based on a simple civil war between the talented people of a northeast area of that large country, the Tigrayans, who don’t like being ruled by an Addis Ababa-based government. But, of course, it is more complicated than that.
There is history here, and if we have forgotten it, the people of the country haven’t.
In the 19th century, most of Africa went under to the superior arms and experience of warfare that European countries such as Great Britain, France and even Belgium and Portugal possessed. It enabled the European countries to add “colonies” to their domains, coloring maps of Africa red, blue and green based on their various masters.
But not Ethiopia — until Benito Mussolini, Italy’s “Il Duce,” decided that Ethiopia, still independent, was an appropriate target to be added to fascist Italy’s domain to make up for what Italy didn’t get in the initial scramble for pieces of Africa. That war started in 1935.
When I first lived in Libya in 1965 there were still Italian fascist signposts at some rural crossroads and painted on the sides of barns in the green hills outside of Benghazi in the Italian-Libyan province of Cyrenaica.
Ethiopia turned out to be a hard morsel for Italy to swallow based on Ethiopians’ own taste for war and because of the League of Nations, newly established to avoid such aggression after World War I’s atrocious slaughters. Nonetheless, Italy took over finally, the country having become of considerable strategic value largely because of its location on the edge of the oil-rich Middle East.
At one time, it was led by what in effect was a medieval monarch, the emperor Haile Selassie, from 1930 to 1974. He was also, in principle, the Ras of the Caribbean-based Rastafarians.
Ethiopia under his rule was predictably pro-Western but, eventually, after he was overthrown, became in principle led by a Marxist-Leninist. At that point the leader of Ethiopia was Mengistu Haile Mariam, noteworthy for having thinned out his Cabinet with a machine gun in a meeting. (So far Donald J. Trump has limited himself to tweets.)
I make no secret of the fact that I think that American military intervention in a possible Ethiopian civil war would be a horrible mistake for our country.
At the same time, I can see about four reasons why we might get dragged into an intra-Ethiopian or regional northeastern African conflict.
President George H.W. Bush was convinced to send American troops to neighboring Somalia, busily engaged in civil war, on Thanksgiving Day 1992. That action was largely due to humanitarian concerns, prompted by pictures of starving and suffering Somali children on television while Americans were going into their annual holiday season.
Wrong. Somalis are still fighting each other for control of what is left of the country 28 years later, with the U.S. government continuing to vow imminent withdrawal of its troops from the civil war, which has nonetheless drawn involvement from neighboring Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, to a degree.
A second means of the United States being pulled more deeply into this chapter of Ethiopia’s endless internal conflicts would be if someone in the new Biden administration were to decide that the Somali conflict was some sort of Rubicon war that the United States had to win. That could be to cover its long investment in it, dating back to when we decided to back the then-nominally Christian government against “godless communism.”
A third giant sucking sound emanating from an Ethiopian-Somali conflict that could draw the United States in during the Biden administration years would be a militantly Islamic government installing itself in part or all of Ethiopia or Somalia, making it the equivalent of Taliban land in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, and thus a threat to America or Israel that Washington could not ignore.
A fourth “draw” for American military involvement in Ethiopia or Somalia would be if a hostile, aggressive government in the area decided to act against American oil interests close at hand to the east. One could argue that America needs — and will need — gas and oil less and less in the future and thus will have less and less need of the assets of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. But we aren’t there yet, and lobbyists for the oil companies concerned could press very hard for America to weigh in.
So my advice would be to stay our hand, watch closely and, for now, stay out of any scrap for control of Ethiopia and/or Somalia.
We had a chance, when locally based Islamic courts governments were seeking control of parts of Somalia, but we blew that opportunity for a general want of willingness to see moderate Islamic governments expand their areas of control. It was easier to maintain that all Islamic governments were devils than to seek to work with one of them.
In the end, it is also a question of allowing the Somalis to determine their own future, based on their history, culture and faith.