Eritrea: Ethiopia, the US and the UN part II


Eritrea: Ethiopia, the US and the UN


Eritrea: Ethiopia, the US and the UN

Part II


Dade Desta   Jan 20, 2014



I. Eritrea Desperately Sought US’ Attention; And She Got It


The US has a short memory of its long history. Eritrea’s is the opposite. In its short history, it has piled up grudges after grudges against everyone but itself. It externalizes its troubles, blames others for everything that goes wrong. Most of the blames are directed at the US. Recently, the Eritrean government media has accused the US of causing the recent Lampedusa tragedy that consumed 365 Eritreans who fled their country and were about to reach the Italian coasts. And why would the US take the blame for this? Someone wrote, “That is because the last three letters in “Lampedusa’ stand for ‘USA’”.


The US is too big and too busy to follow up on Eritrea’s actions. That seems serving the Eritrea regime well. No single day passes without the Eritrean media tirelessly throwing the sink dirt on the US. Two years ago, Eri-Tv editorial claimed 9/11 was self-created by the US itself to justify her other sinister actions that followed. The President himself said “America created the 1998 Badime war.” The CIA deploys plenty of its resources to weaken Eritrea by draining it of its youth, and many more.


Such messages are exclusively catered to jealously guard the President’s supporters from falling out. Isaias needed the enmity of the US to deflect all dangerous internal questions- more threatening to his power than the absence of good relations with the US. Isaias was able to project the dual impression of an underdog fighting a giant power, on the one hand, and a sense of parity on the other by appearing to challenge the biggest power on earth.


In the meantime, Isaias has done a few things to the US. He jailed two embassy workers for years incommunicado. He kicked USAID out USAID from Eritrea. The first peacekeepers and mission observers in UNMEE that were singled out and declared persona non grata were those who came from USA and Europe. The US was not that furious on all of this. But, it was when it learned the involvement of Eritrea’s hands in Somalia siding with the islamists and terrorists. Eritrea was taking this risk not out of love for the islamists but primarily out of crazy urge of seeking the attention of the US. One could argue that Eritrean involvement was mainly meant to sabotage Ethiopia. Yes, but even that was hoped to eventually help secure US’ attention.


Why do we think Herman Cohen’s recent memo nailed it for the Eritrean regime when he encouraged the US to open up military cooperation with them? Because Isaias said he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department.


The U.S. is using Djibouti as a watchtower to monitor and respond to terrorist activities in the strategic regions of the Horn and the Red Sea. From a geographic perspective, Eritrea might have been a better choice to station U.S. military facilities than the much smaller Djibouti, also hosting a French military base. Besides, Eritrea’s expressed wish to host American forces at the time has been reported by major media outlets. In 2002 President Isaias made an offer to the then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who was visiting the Horn countries: “We have very limited resources, but we are willing and prepared to use these resources in any way that is useful to combat terrorism. The United States can have access to Eritrea's military bases as part of its war against terror." Mr. Rumsfeld did not clearly disclose then if the U.S. would take up Eritrea on its offer beyond stating that he was there to thank the Eritrean government for its support on the war against terrorism and that his visit has nothing to do with any specific transaction.


Secretary Rumsfeld left Asmara for Addis Ababa to meet Ethiopian leaders on similar mission. A week before that the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki were in Washington as guests of President George Bush to discuss regional security issues. Eritrea’s eagerness to have U.S. forces stationed in the Assab area also was confirmed by a media interview with the then Eritrean Ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmerom. Assab, it should be noted, became utterly non-functional since the entire Ethiopian import-export traffic shifted to Djibouti. With this in mind members of the Ethiopian House of Representatives confronted Prime Minister Meles about the reports of U.S. plans to use the port of Assab as base for its counter terrorism activities. Meles explained that he had been given assurance from the U.S. administration that there would not be such a plan.


The US had high hopes for Eritrea until the war broke. The Eritrean leader was one of the African leaders President Clinton included in his “African new breeds” complement. During the war, the US moved fast to help without officially condemning Eritrea for the aggression she committed. The US-Rwanda proposal was packaged to face-save Eritrea and prevent an all-out war everyone saw coming. Eritrea rejected the proposal not because it was unfair but Eritrea thought it had advantages should a total war break-out.


The US, too, thought Eritrea stood relatively stronger and Ethiopia might suffer the unknown consequences of a military defeat. Ambassador Shinn was present when US war experts were explaining the possible outcomes of the war to Ethiopian officials using satellite footages. “You will lose the war” was the message highlighted. WikiLeaks file later showed that PM Meles was so furious up on reading the Eritrean President’s interview claiming Washington told him that they feared a full-fledged war would disintegrate Ethiopia.


Ambassador Richard Holbrooke facilitated a sanction resolution on Ethiopia and Eritrea. That was totally unfair as it treated the victim and the aggressor in the same way. It is obvious the US was trying hard to discourage Ethiopia from launching an offensive but it seemed nothing would stop Ethiopia from trying to regain its territory. A week earlier from the final offensives, Holbrooke came to Ethiopia to warn Meles in a direct language. People in the know reported Meles was so agitated by the bullying approach of Holbrooke and there were an unpleasant exchange of words between them. Even after the offensives, US was still active in mediating the two parties. US never lost the trust and confidence of Ethiopia and Eritrea until 2002.


One main reason for the deterioration of U.S. - Eritrea relationship U.S rejection of the Eritrean offer of Assab. Apparently, U.S. officials rejected the offer not to upset Ethiopia or so were perceived by Eritreans. The U.S. -Eritrean relationship has dramatically altered to the point where the U.S. once considered the option of listing Eritrea as a sponsor of terrorism due to its involvement in helping extremist Somali forces. Herman Cohen erred and said this: “In 2008, the George W. Bush Administration declared Eritrea to be a ‘state sponsor of terrorism.’” It didn’t happen.

In fact, one piece of information that came out later last week regarding this issue deserves to be looked at. Ambassador Princeton Lyman tells us how the US was so close to designate Eritrea and how Eritrea successfully danced away from it. Lyman was literally tricked the Eritrean way. He thought a discussion was needed before the designation of Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism would be declared. He asked the Bush Administration to hold the designation process. Lyman said, Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, the Eritrean ambassador traveled home, promising me a list of Eritrean delegates when he returned. I did not hear back from him for months. When he finally contacted me, he told me that President Isaias had in fact killed the idea.One of the US diplomats who understand the Eritrean leadership better was Dr. Jundiai Frazer. In her opinion and as reported in WikiLeaks files, it is not in the mentality of the Eritrean leadership to negotiate but rather to force action. Frazer said, even when Eritrea solicited the US intervention in the peace processes, it was with the view that Washington would impose a solution on Ethiopia.


Eritrea later paid the price of all that at some other venues. The US was instrumental in passing the UNSC sanction resolutions (1907 and 1922) imposed on Eritrea citing Eritrea’s support to radicals in Somalia and its destabilizing role in the region. In contrast, Ethiopia remained a key partner of the U.S. and is reportedly one of the major U.S. foreign aid recipients in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Cooperation between the US and Ethiopia has grown so mutual, so multi-tracked.


David Shinn said, “Whatever Washington does in the coming months, its relationship with Addis Ababa is more important than the one with Asmara. Although the United States might decide to try again to improve relations with Eritrea, it will not do so at the expense of its ties with Ethiopia. Ideally, the United States, Ethiopia and Eritrea will collectively decide the time has come to normalize/improve relations so that Eritrea can come in from the cold.” If the US thinks that way, there won’t be any disagreement with what Shinn said above as long as he doesn’t tie normalization with any territorial transfer, Badime or otherwise. Don’t complicate it. Saving Eritrea from the cold must be good enough. Eritrea should not be rewarded for being saved from the cold.

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