Barking Up All Kinds of Trees: A Response to Tesfaye Habisso
Donald Levine 02/09/10
My good friend and colleague Tesfaye Habisso was surely right to remark that a few points in my response to his article on Free Elections did not deal with his foreground issue: the negative consequences of American involvement in the democratization of Third World countries. Indeed, he could have found many more such points had he wished to. My piece as a whole was an elaborate exercise of sem'nna worq, in which the gold of examining the value of American assistance in democratic institution-building was immersed in the wax of foreign influences in Ethiopia over time. It seems that I lingered so long on the wax–perhaps imagining it wrapping a bunch of tsa'da mear–that the gold was rather obscured. Yiqirta aderguliñ!
Had I not done so, however, I would have failed in my responsibility as a sociologist to look always for links between phenomena of the moment and larger historical and structural contexts. This was the same quest I pursued in numerous previous articles, which concerned both the difficulties of democratizing societies with age-old monarchies, and the tragedy of Ethiopia's missed opportunities. Ambassador Tesfaye graciously acknowledged the latter by writing: "Professor Donald Levine has induced us all, I think, to be full of regrets at missed opportunities and wrong-headed policies of yesterday and today." And in the article to which my piece was a response, my friend Tesfaye and I see eye to eye on so many matters that our differences on two issues should not obscure broad agreement.
We readily agree about the negative consequences of historic interventions by Portugal, not to mention England. I've added pertinent material to the posted revision of my Fortune article at www.eineps.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2806 :
Even when foreigners intervened ostensibly to protect Ethiopia, they led to repercussions that brought Ethiopians enormous grief. Portugal’s aid against the jihad was followed by Jesuit inroads, converting Ethiopians to Catholicism which provoked costly civil wars. Even if England’s invasion of 1868 could be thought of as aimed at normalizing British-Abyssinian relations and led to museum preservations, it involved rapacious looting of Ethiopian national treasures; and then, far more deadly in its consequences, British abrogation of the Hewett Treaty encouraged Italy to make inroads on the Red Sea Coast, eventuating in the dismemberment of Ethiopia through by creating a separate colonial state. It is more than understandable, then, that Ethiopians should have a standing suspicion of ferinji motives and intentions.
We agree whole-heartedly that the United States has done considerable damage in the world through its inept and often destructive interventions. I have long argued that the Iranian intervention of 1953 was a historic disaster. The British wanted to overthrow Mossadegh for the sake of their petroleum interests and asked for U.S. support, a request that President Truman stoutly refused. Only when replaced by Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers did U.S. policy change, with a crude restoration of the Shah which led ultimately to the repressive regime of the ayatollahs and, arguably, stimulated Bin Laden. The Vietnamese intervention was wantonly destructive. Tesfaye Habisso surely knows how many Americans opposed both the Vietnamese war and the invasion of Iraq, and understands that the soundness of Barack Obama's pre-invasion statements against the latter was what drew so many of us initially to his candidacies.
That said, and given that Tesfaye and I have agreed to disagree in the open on any issues where we find ourselves holding different positions, in order to learn from one another, let me point out two trees that Tesfaye planted which I still want to bark at. First, although American interventions have done enormous damage, I cannot accept his one-sided rejection of all American efforts at democratization, to the extent of dismissing out of hand American efforts in Italy, Japan, and Germany after the War. Those stories still demand investigation, but credible accounts are now emerging. In particular, on the basis of painstaking first-time analyses of pertinent archives, noted sociologist Uta Gerhardt has produced a revealing book, Soziologie der Stunde Null, which, when published in English, will bear the title, The Ultimate Victory: The Untold Story of How America Democratized Germany after World War II.
The other difference concerns my puzzlement at the striking allegation that prompted me to write a response in the first place: the claim that "the bloody chaos and disruptions that occurred after the May 2005 national and regional elections in Ethiopia were undoubtedly . . . the outcome of Western interference and attempt bent on ousting the current nationalist and populist developmental regime and replacing it with a client government in Ethiopia that would serve the interests of the West and its multi-national/ trans-national corporations, and not Ethiopia and the Ethiopians."
I find it difficult to imagine that many EPRDF members accept this claim. Apart from the peculiarity of blaming the United States for instigating Ethiopians' violence following the 2005 elections, just voicing such a claim stands to discredit international concerns about human rights violations and modern electoral standards–which Tesfaye staunchly supports as has the Ethiopian Government. Yet how can efforts of all stakeholders who seek to promote a free and fair electoral process be welcomed in the face of allegations of "dirty tricks and tactics of Western state agencies and their NGOs together with their servile local media agents and NGOs in the country who unashamedly orchestrated those foul and sinister games during and after the third national elections in Ethiopia"?
And how, we should ask with no less urgency, can such an attitude be supportive of Ethiopia’s own Constitution? The avowed goal of international facilitators and observers is strictly confined to helping the Ethiopian government live up to the promises of that Constitution. To say that these interventions aim to create “pliant governments and client regimes amenable to their national interests” makes little sense if it is realized that forthright adherence to the Constitution would rather prevent a pliant regime from arising..
Article 54 of the Constitution states: “Members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives shall be elected by the People for a term of five years on the basis of universal suffrage and by direct, free and fair elections held by secret ballot.” The role of the international community is to see to it that conditions for free and fair elections are indeed in place. Why is international intervention necessary? As Prime Minister Meles Zenawi himself has emphasized: Ethiopian society is deeply divided and lacks democratic traditions at the national level. Until domestic institutions have acquired the capacity to assure that conditions for free and fair elections are observed, the only way by which the results of elections can be accepted by all parties is when they are supervised and ascertained by independent observers; and if those observers do not uphold professional standards, they should be brought to court at once.
By the same token, the only way to ensure that local security personnel do not abuse human rights is to assist agencies whose mission it is to investigate claims of such abuses, and to help them build institutional capacities to protect those rights. By openly embracing such assistance the Ethiopian government and people will once more rise to the same high level of international acclaim as when they participated, as the only nation from sub-Saharan Africa, in the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 and subsequently became a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose principles are enshrined in Ethiopia's own exemplary Constitution of 1995.