There is so much to say about the tragedy currently unfolding in Tigray, so much propaganda, so many paranoid conspiracy theories on all sides in the conflict, and this being Africa, such low quality media coverage… If you don’t know much about it, don’t get Gell-Man amnesia and start with a random news article. Instead, the best place to start is probably the Wikipedia pages on the war, the timeline, and the start (check the citations if anything seems biased!) But my assumption is that you have already done all of that.
My focus here is just the US foreign policy aspect. What is going on in Washington, how do we explain US government actions vis-à-vis Ethiopia? Is it “responsibility to protect” or is it “neocolonialism”? Is it all part of a broader strategy related to China or is it related to Egypt? I have not seen anyone answer this adequately, so this is my humble attempt to make sense of it.
Throughout this post I try to remember three principles. Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is usually the best one. Hanlon’s razor: never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Third, every complex problem has a simple neat explanation which is wrong, so we won’t oversimplify.
Let me explain where the question arises. First let’s take a snapshot — the very eventful week of May 23, 2021:
- May 23: the US State Dept imposed imposed visa restrictions on Ethiopian government officials, which had been rumoured a couple of days earlier.
- May 24 Blinken spoke to the UAE foreign minister. The same day, the UAE pulled out of Ethiopia-Sudan dispute mediation.
- May 26 Blinken met with Al-Sisi
- May 26 USAID said in a press release and in a US Senate hearing on May 27, that a “USAID partner” had been killed by “Ethiopian and Eritrean” and that the killing was ” clearly intentional”. A few things stood out:
- I’ve tried but can’t find the name of the partner organization. It’s not mentioned in the press release, or in the statements to congress the next day, or in any press interview. Why would it be secret?
- In congress, USAID’s Sarah Charles said it happened in April. But for some reason, USAID did not speak bout the murder for a month. Here’s a CNN story where “a top USAID official working on the ground in Tigray” talks about the situation with partners on April 30, and does not mention the murder.
- the press release says the killing was by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. As described by Ms Charles, it was not in the heat of the battle. And she also says “and”. It would be understandable if they said “or”. The “and” means they know it’s both. It seems strange that both armies would simultaneously shoot one unarmed person, especially given that most reports have them in different territories, and there was no battle going on.
- May 27 In Senate testimony, Sarah Charles said that it was critical the US be allowed to bring in “right kind of people” and “right kind of equipment” to Ethiopia, but that some people were denied visas. Which raises the question, why would the Ethiopian government deny some visas but not all? WFP, World Vision and CARE don’t seem to have visa problems. The government says it not only grants access but also provides security to aid workers when they go in areas where fighting is still going on. And adds that it has intercepted weapons and ammunition in food aid trucks, so checking the trucks is necessary. The subtext here is obvious. It is not a secret that USAID sometimes has secret programs and after all, as it’s current head Samantha Powers said in her confirmation hearing, USAID is a national security agency. So a bit of disagreement on the “right kind of people” should be expected and the USAID reaction seems a little disingenuous.
Then there’s the election. Despite all the flaws, the Ethiopian federal elections on June 21st are objectively an improvement over the previous ones. The flaws of course include the fact that two major parties OFC and OLF boycotted. And that the election has been delayed in some regions, including Tigray, which together represent almost 20% of the seats. On the positive side, the independence of the judiciary, independence of the election board, number of parties participating nationwide, number of voters are all better than ever (admittedly a very low bar). Yet over the last few weeks, the US statements started sounding very negative about it. It started with “deeply concerned” on May 27, to being “gravely concerned” on June 11. They also keep talking about “post-election dialogue” before the election, which sounds a lot like encouraging people in advance to not respect the outcome. All we hear from the US state department is glass half-empty rhetoric, and almost constant predictions of violence. Wouldn’t it be strange if, while doctors are working hard to deliver a baby, a “friend” just kept repeating over and over that they are deeply concerned about the complications, and that the family should be prepared for a funeral?
Now zoom out and consider the think tanks and media figures that form the bench of the foreign policy establishment. We have ex-CIA people like Cameron Hudson at the Atlantic Council and Judd Devermont at the Center for Strategic & International studies, consistently pushing the most pessimistic narratives about the election. We have Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute, ex-Pentagon neocon who worked on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, writing extremely negative articles about Ethiopia predicting trouble with Kenya and Somalia, and even predicting the break up of the country. If we look at the NY Times, the chief Africa guy Declan Walsh seems to be on a campaign to rewrite the history of how the war started: he wrote 4 long articles on it, without once mentioning the actual event that started the war, namely the Nov 4 attacks, and each time stating the opposite of what happened — that the first attack was by the government rather than TPLF. (His most recent article seems to deliberately change the date of a conversation between Abiy and Coons to support that reversal). This is really bizarre and reminds me of the scandal of the WMD stories leading up to the Iraq war.
If you know anything about US-Ethiopia relations, regardless of your views, it should be obvious that something is going on. It almost feels like a new product launch. The Biden administration and the broader foreign policy establishment in the US seem to be executing a policy which views the current Ethiopian government as an adversary. Most importantly, there is a clear push for “intervention”. What is the thinking behind it? Let’s consider some hypotheses:
1. R2P: Our null hypothesis is to take it at face value. The US actions simply reflect “the international community’s responsibility to protect” and should be welcomed. No doubt that this motivation is true for many of the individuals involved, so I will give this some weight, but overall, the pattern of actions listed above refutes this as the only explanation. Why would they go to such lengths to not acknowledge the cause of the war for instance?
2. Scorpion: the opposite hypothesis is that the US and Ethiopia are like the scorpion and the frog in the fable, that “they” just want to harm Ethiopia period, because it is in their nature as an evil empire. We can simply dismiss this hypothesis. And throw pure racism in this bucket too. Yes of course racism is a factor at various levels, especially the subtle racism of condescending “experts”, but it is just silly to think that is the main force driving the policy.
3. Puppets: This hypothesis is that the TPLF is successfully manipulating “the west” using money and propaganda. It’s true that many journalists, crisis experts and activists on social media probably serve TPLF. Some may be paid agents, and some may be “useful idiots”. But the idea that people at the highest levels of power in Washington are unwitting puppets of TPLF seems implausible. How about the idea that they are consciously doing it? Indeed much has been made of Susan Rice’s history with TPLF, or Tedros Adhanom’s connections etc. Relationships matter a great deal of course, like Chalabi for Iraq, but it seems like a stretch to say these personal relationships are the main reason for the overall policy.
4. China peril: maybe it is just part of the geopolitical chess game with China. Ok that seems plausible on the surface, China has been very investing in Ethiopia, way more than the US. And containing a “surging China in Africa” definitely fits the bill as something big enough to drive policy in Washington. But on deeper analysis… It doesn’t explain our situation. Over the last 3 years with the current government, the trend in Ethiopia is slightly leaning more towards the West than before, including famously in the telecom sector. So “growing fear of China” does not make sense as an explanation for US interventionism in Ethiopia at this time. Ditto for “fear of Russia”.
5. Neocolonialist resource grab: this hypothesis is that “The West” has a strategy to exploit resources in the region in the long run, which requires a pliant government, which it had until three years ago with TPLF, but the current government is not, so they want to destabilize and ultimately replace it. Given the last 150 years of African history, this definitely deserves consideration. But in this case that doesn’t really make sense as a root cause. Ethiopia is not a very good place for pure extractive exploitation… Not much oil and gas etc. What there is is a lot of water, which is indeed very valuable. But even if you think of water converted to electricity, or water converted to food through irrigation, so what? It’s not like the US or Europe need to take food or electricity from Ethiopia, so that doesn’t explain it.
6. Oak: But of course water is the key and it brings us to our final hypothesis, which is the Egyptian angle. It is no coincidence that all of this strange stuff is overlapping with GERD. Fundamentally, GERD itself is actually not harmful to Egypt, and there is a reasonable way to share the Nile long term – the Cooperative Framework Agreement. But politically, GERD is a threat to the Al Sisi regime right now. The military government in Egypt lives in constant fear of the Muslim brotherhood, fear of a new iteration of the Arab Spring of 2011, etc. The exaggerated almost caricatural “strongman” image Al Sisi cultivates is because he needs to project strength.
That’s how he got there in 2013, it is in the nature of his power. The moment he shows weakness, he’s toast. Like the oak tree in the fable, if he bends he breaks. And nothing makes him look weaker than Ethiopia going ahead with GERD despite his intransigence. Egypt will be fine but the current Egyptian government is at risk, and the best way to minimize that risk is to destabilize Ethiopia enough that GERD is stopped or at least delayed until it can be done in a “pliant” way that makes Al Sisi look “strong” domestically in Egypt.
But why does the US care about this oak tree regime more than peace in the horn of Africa? Well the oak is a necessary part of the regional axis with Saudi Arabia, and UAE. If Egypt is run by the Muslim brotherhood or a secular civilian government, or anything other than a military dictator, it may no longer be a reliable ally of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran. And this is definitely the type of thing that could cause neo-cons, and the liberal hawks and all the other interventionists to coalesce. So it seems plausible that there is a faction within the Biden administration and the broader “establishment” that believes in trying to weaken Ethiopia to help Al Sisi as part of the the overall strategy in the Middle East. It explains the “launch” events of the week of May 23, it fits Feltman going to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar to discuss GERD. It fits with the US policy in Yemen. And it is similar to the convoluted logic on Syria that you see from all the “serious people”. It is of course not wise to attach yourself to a doomed oak and it’s not like they don’t know it. Listen to this interview with Ben Rhodes who was in the white house during the Egyptian coup of 2013. But a policy in an organization as complex as this is not like a logical thought in a single brain, it’s the outcome of many competing interests. If enough factions want something, it can happen even if their reasons are contradictory. A great explanation of this is in an interview of Al Gore in 2006 which really struck me at the time. Skip ahead to 27:20 where he says “the decision to invade Iraq was the worst strategic mistake in American history” and goes on to very clearly explain the “perfect storm” of four policy forces that led to it. It is really one of the most remarkably clear segments I’ve ever heard on recent US foreign policy.
And as in the case of Iraq in 2001-2003, here in 2021 with Ethiopia, it’s not one thing, I would say US interventionism is driven by
- 60% stability of the Al-Sisi regime,
- 20% fear of China,
- 15% R2P
- 5% pro-TPLF feelings
For now this seems like a powerful mix, and the interventionists have the upper hand in the Biden administration. They will “pay any price, bear any burden” to pursue these deeply flawed goals. As long as the price is paid and the burden is born by others of course. That’s the big picture. Not very glorious. Just the same type of mess that in the past has led to the US supporting military coups overthrowing democracy when the “wrong” party wins elections like in Egypt, talking about humanitarianism while favoring war like in Yemen, “accidentally” arming Al Nusra Front (aka Al.Qaeda) in Syria, lying about motives and bringing perpetual war like in Iraq etc. I’m sure Samantha Powers and Susan Rice try to rationalize that they are the good guys, the ends justify the means, mistakes are made etc. But they have been staring into the abyss for too long, the abyss stared back at them and sucked them in.
The best hope is for the interventionists to be slowed by the weight of their past disasters and blocked by other factions in the US. American interventionism has been failing a lot for a long time. The Iraq invasion gave birth to Al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS. They made Iran, which they want above all to contain, stronger than ever in Iraq. Assad won in Syria. Even Libya, despite Egypt the supposed big force of the Arab world being right next door, is a dismal failure. In Yemen $100B and five years of bombing, the Houthis are still there. In Afghanistan, after 20 years and $2T US intervention, Al Qaeda moved and the Taliban won. More important than the failure to achieve US goals, the incalculable damage to the people in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen is impossible to ignore and the strategic blow-back keeps getting worse. So despite the strong interventionist cabal in the Biden administration, it’s not clear they can beat the “isolationists”, some evangelical Christians like Inhofe that are pro-Ethiopia, maybe even some “anti-imperialists” from the left, and other factions in the administration and congress.
An additional weakness of the interventionists, which may seem paradoxical, is that they don’t pay the price of their mistakes personally. No matter how wrong their predictions and disastrous their policies, the same people keep shuffling in and out of think tanks and the Pentagon and the state department, progressing their careers, with no evolutionary pressure, no natural selection. So in effect, neo-cons and liberal hawks and Clintonites and Cheneyites in the foreign policy establishment have been in-breeding for so long their ideas are getting weaker, and their failures are getting more expensive. Samantha Powers and Susan Rice are like inbred descendants of Henry Kissinger. Michael Rubin is like Paul Wolfowitz’s mini-me. So one possibility is that it all just fizzles out in incompetence and they end up doing nothing significant in Ethiopia.
There are also forces outside the US at play. GERD is kind of a pan-African rallying point. Practically six Nile Basin countries are already aligned with Ethiopia on this issue. Another key variable appears to be the UAE. They are usually aligned with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But, they have had a good relationship with Eritrea and Ethiopia, helped with the peace treaty between the two governments, offered to mediate with Sudan (until suddenly backing off mentioned above). Qatar is famously not aligned with Saudis so a possible balancing force. Turkey is a other big source of investment in Ethiopia and is a potential stabilizing force and of course China is as usual against US interventionism. Finally, there’s the fact that no matter how many times they pooh-pooh Abiy’s Nobel peace prize, whatever his flaws, they can’t make him look like a Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad because he isn’t. And the election will make that even clearer.