Conservative Columnist: Symbolism And Realpolitik

by J. Peter Pham

The National Interest Online, DC
Oct 10 2007

Amid the complex dynamics of the Horn of Africa, the most significant
national interest at stake for the United States is preventing
Al-Qaeda (or any other like-minded international terrorist network)
from acquiring a new base and opening a new front in their war against
America and its allies. In this respect, Ethiopia is one of America’s
most reliable African counterterrorism partners.

But, last Tuesday, the United States House of Representatives passed
by voice vote and sent to the Senate the Ethiopia Democracy and
Accountability Act of 2007. The bill, sponsored by Congressman Don
Payne (D-NJ) and some 85 colleagues from both sides of the aisle,
declares official U.S. policy to "support the advancement of human
rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the
press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia." It also prohibits, unless
the president makes specific certifications, security assistance to
Ethiopia and entry into the U.S. for Ethiopian officials accused of
involvement in human rights abuses.

In certain districts, large Ethiopian-American communities hostile
to the current government in their native country obviously make
the legislation good electoral politics, but the motivations of the
bill’s sponsors are still largely well-intentioned-both Payne, the
chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, and
the ranking Republican member, Chris Smith of New Jersey, have long
histories of advocacy for the continent. Mass arrests, lethal force
used against civilians and the Ethiopian government’s counterinsurgency
campaign this summer against ethnic Somali rebels all lead one to think
censure may not be such a bad idea. The government of Prime Minister
Meles Zenawi enforced a trade blockade in the eastern region of his
country, exacerbating the already precarious balance of life there;
many of Addis Ababa’s actions have endangered fellow countrymen. Yet,
these humanitarian considerations need to be weighed against other
U.S. interests.

Ethiopia has participated in the State Department-funded
capacity-building East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI).

The Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP), which is designed to identify
terrorists and hinder their movement across borders, is operative
in Ethiopian airports and other international transit points. Last
year, when no one else was willing to deal with the menace of a
rising Islamist movement in Somalia- which included Al-Qaeda members
specially designated by the U.S. government as well as by the United
Nations Security Council-Ethiopian troops preemptively dispersed the
militants. All this is more than can be said for any other country
in the subregion.

Furthermore, Ethiopia has had a long history of cooperating with the
U.S. Except during the Marxist dictatorship that lasted from 1974 to
1991, Ethiopia was a linchpin of America’s anti-Soviet containment
regime along the southern tier of the Middle East. The Kagnew
communications facility, for example, was highly valued by the U.S.

military as part of its global radio system. An Ethiopian contingent
fought alongside U.S. forces in the Korean War (the unit, dubbed the
"Kagnew Battalion," was attached to the 7th Infantry Division and
fought in a number of engagements, including two famous battles at
"Pork Chop Hill"). More recently, Ethiopia pledged 5,000 seasoned
troops to the hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan’s
Darfur region-the most substantial commitment to date to a mission
that, notwithstanding its international cause celèbre status, has
attracted few volunteers.

While obviously none of this qualifies anyone for an automatic
free pass, it also should not be surprising that the Ethiopian
government would react angrily to the bill’s passage. A statement by
Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United States, labeled it
"irresponsible legislation" which, if it becomes law, "would undermine
regional stability in the Horn of Africa by jeopardizing vital security
cooperation" between his country and America. The envoy took particular
umbrage to what he perceived as a double standard given that there is
no "Eritrea Democracy and Accountability Act" under consideration:
"The fact is that the entire region faces a serious threat from
Eritrea-a country that the U.S. Department of State is considering
listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, and that has rejected the
core institutions of legal opposition parties and a private press,
officially banning both, and also outlawed worship by minority
religious denominations." Noting that a "recent United Nations report
concluded that Eritrea has armed terrorists in Somalia with weapons
including suicide belts and anti-aircraft missiles," Ambassador Assefa
lamented that "rather than move against the country that denies all
rights and religious freedom to its citizens, and foments instability,"
Congress decided instead to zero in on his country.

While promoting democracy in Ethiopia (and elsewhere) is and ought
to be an objective of U.S. foreign policy-after all, although it is
not without risks and needs to be pursued within the context of a
broader strategy, democratization can counter terrorism in the long
run by providing alternative venues for dissent in closed societies-it
needs to be weighed against our other interests, both immediate and
long-term. In 1985, pursuing the commendable goal of discouraging
nuclear proliferation, Congress passed the Pressler Amendment, which
required the president to certify that Pakistan did not possess a
nuclear weapon as a pre-condition for further U.S. assistance. When,
in 1990, President George W. Bush decided he could no longer make
the certification, the U.S. suspended its aid program to Pakistan,
including military assistance and training. Not only did the cut-off
fail to have the desired effect-Pakistan conducted its first nuclear
tests in 1998 in response to a round of testing by India-but because
of the country’s suspension from the International Military Education
and Training (IMET) program, the U.S. had little or no contact with
an entire generation of rising Pakistani officers until after 9/11,
when it was reinstated. This has only heightened concerns over the
possible successors of President Pervez Musharraf and the retiring
Western-influenced officers of his generation.

This same cost-benefit analysis needs to be applied when dealing with
historical controversies like the Affirmation of the United States
Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution, which comes up for a vote
this week and has more than 226 co-sponsors. It is difficult to argue
with the general thrust of the latter legislation’s determination:
The "Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman
Empire from 1915 to 1923, resulting in the deportation of nearly
2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children
were killed, 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes, and
which succeeded in the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence
of Armenians in their historic homeland." But does this gesture,
meaningful as it may be to Armenian-Americans and Armenians worldwide,
advance U.S. interests? And, if so, which ones and at what cost? (A
bipartisan group of eight former Secretaries of State-Madeleine
Albright, James Baker III, Warren Christopher, Laurence Eagleburger,
Alexander Haig, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George
Schultz-sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning that the
resolution "could quickly extend beyond symbolic significance" and
"endanger our national security interests in the region, including
our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and damage efforts to promote
reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey.")

While the interests that might be pursued by a large, pluralistic
country like the United States are infinite in number, the resources
which it actually has at its disposal for their pursuit are always
limited. Thus, as Hans Morgenthau repeatedly advocated, a rational
hierarchy must be established among the elements which together
constitute the national interest as well as the resources that
condition the choice of means and ends. This is especially important in
a democratic polity where the populist temptation is to present each
of the various goals-defeating enemies, ensuring stability, opening
markets, encouraging democracy, eliminating poverty and disease,
promoting American culture, etc.-as equally essential, rather than in
any way competitive among themselves. Morgenthau warned in The Purpose
of American Politics that "the very survival of America calls for
a new ordering of its relations with the outside world." That, five
decades later, Congress still indulges in symbolic gestures which,
while not even serving core U.S. national interests, may nonetheless
rattle the delicate balance of what our partners judge to be their
most significant political or other interests, is a reminder of how
much prudence is required to construct a rational, realistic, and,
ultimately, sustainable foreign policy.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International
and Public Affairs at James Madison University.

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