US Foreign Policy in Eritrea: Kagnew, Badme to Sanctions and Ethiopia

United States' relations with Eritrea have been fraught from the outset and they have been both shaped and overshadowed by those with Ethiopia, and almost always to Eritrea’s disadvantage
United States’ relations with Eritrea have been fraught from the outset and they have been both shaped and overshadowed by those with Ethiopia and almost always to Eritrea’s disadvantage

By Sam B.,

For the Major Powers, Ethiophiles and the Ethiopian Regime itself, “today, even more than in Haile Selassie’s time, saving the Empire from disintegration has become the major  preoccupation”2, wrote the renowned scholar Dr. Amare Tekle.

A herculean task is afoot again to save the creaking patchwork of nationalities called Ethiopia from its self-made contradictions and potentially even eventual destruction. As ever, its relationship with Eritrea and Eritrea’s relationship with the major powers features prominently. The French adage: “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” – “the more thing change, the more they stay the same” – rings truer with every attempt to salvage, at Eritrea’s expense, what is left of the once “proud” Empire.

Consequently, Eritrea’s foreign relations, particularly those with the United States have been strained. “Always there are ways forward, but to find them one must first know how one got to where one is”, reminds the celebrated historian Basil Davidson. In a contribution to the 1988 book, “The Long Struggle of Eritrea”, and Davidson’s section, “The Eritrean Question, The Way Forward”, he identified the “moment when new initiatives already launched by the Eritrean national movement have yet to exert their full strength and effect”. It was not long before he was totally vindicated. It appears again, Eritrea is back at that same juncture, where its full strength and effect, of patiently cultivated political and economic energies (possibly military if need be), could forcefully exert themselves again. For Eritrea this moment is akin to the period between 1986-7.

As it periodically happens the atmosphere is rife again with propositions of ways to mend the US-Eritrea relationship, and thereby steer into a more positive footing also the Eritrea Ethiopia quandary as well. Valid or otherwise, the perception that permeates is the possibility of US policy shift, at least moderation to accommodate Eritrea, if only Eritrea reciprocates. Inevitably this observation and expectations are viewed differently by different sectors, with different interests and perspectives, invariably leading to an assortment of diverging conjectures.

Qualitatively, however, the recent bout of speculations is different. Eritrea’s tenacity to perceiver in the face of multilayered seemingly insurmountable challenges – sanction, economic, sabotage, demographic pressures and armed attacks among others – cannot fail but to engender a rethinking of its adversaries past miscalculations. If it had been otherwise, or Eritrea had shown any sign of eventual misfortune befalling it, it is safe to assume there would hardly be any contemplation of policy moderation or accommodation.

In light of these revelations, and so we can adequately appreciate the moment at hand, as well as, going forward to anticipate the contours of the probable circumstances that may arise, it is time to reassess how we got where we are now. This process of reflection ought to assist us in taking stock of the potential challenges and opportunities ahead.

President Isaias Afwerki’s 03 December 2013 letter to United Nations Security Council (“UNSC”) ostensibly set off speculation of future rapprochement or reconciliation between the Unite States and Eritrea. In which he asked UNSC “to rectify the ‘erroneous sanctions’.”3 Coincidentally or otherwise, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman J. Cohen agreed on a 16 December 2013 article titled “Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold”. In Ambassador Cohen’s estimation: “In view of the absence of any intelligence, real or fabricated, linking Eritrea” to nefarious activities “the UNSC should terminate sanctions”. 4

Ambassadors David Shinn and Princeton Lyman joined the fray on 13 and 14 January 2014, respectively. As usual, to bolster Ethiopia’s and US position, but nevertheless in essence agreeing that “Ambassador Cohen is right that ending the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is long overdue” and that “the same is true for better relations between Eritrea and the US.” 5 Prior to the two Ambassadors, Ethiopia’s Permanent Representative to United Nations reacted with the usual invectives. As did Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) with its fulminations on 28 December 2013, oddly objecting to, “the recent talk of mending Ethio-Eritrean relations, the subject of discussion by some sympathizers of Eritrea.”6 And yet again on 27 January 2014, Ethiopia’s MOFA added another reply, in what can only be called hyperventilation. To accuse Ambassador Cohen of being a “sympathizers of Eritrea” is a form of psychosis.

Though some are infused with expectant excitement and others with annexation (read Ethiopia MOFA) of some momentous and transformative event to transpire, possibly a significant shift in US Foreign Policy, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, it should be noted that at least in the short term, there is a paucity of convincing signs that make such prospect likely. Going forward, the times necessitate the contextualization of relevant historic moments and documents. In this we shall resort to emulating EPLF’s approach:

“Like most EPLF political leaders, Sebhat [Ephrem] prefaced nearly all his remarks with lengthy historic context… Even their [EPLF’s] press releases started with lengthy historical explanations, a device guaranteed to lose the attention of Western reporters, but that EPLF seemed to feel was necessary.”7

So wrote a Western reporter. Even if this contextualization is “guaranteed to lose the attention” of some, an attempt to injecting some perspective into a milieu polluted by Ethiopia’s propaganda peddlers is at once necessary and indispensable.

An assessment of the “lengthy historic context” and the milieu that produced the current alignment in the Horn of Africa is too critical in aiding to parse out the potential outline of future events. It will also illuminate the actor’s motives and the parameters within which they will attempt to influence events and each other.

At the outset, we should recall, that despite appearances invariably all the current virtual interlocutors are hardly an arms-length dispassionate third parties. Some have been central in either stoking the conflict or in setting the trajectory of the doomed relationships between Eritrea and United States. Ambassador Cohen, who is alluded to be a “sympathizers of Eritrea”, for instance, as late as 28 February 1990 speech to US Congress was adamant that Eritrea should remain part of Ethiopia. The total effect of Ambassadors Shinn and Lyman contribution has been to muck up the waters of the modest (at best) suggestions made Ambassador Cohen, in additions to their unhelpful past records. All individuals are distinguished by their service to United States’ interest, and not to the peoples of the Horn.

Though now they all profess to seek to mediate, or advice on how to, what they so dexterously excluded from their narrative should serve as caution. Whatever their motivations, it is a welcome development that all (but the Ethiopian regime) agree that the US-Eritrea relationship is well overdue for a reset. Given however how the US involvement in the region had already played out, it would be instructive to reflect on the circumstances and respective interests that precipitated the present state of affairs – and are likely to affect the future.

Starting in early 1940s up to today the United States has played a central role in the affairs of the Horn. Connell (2009) provided a useful backdrop for the role the US played in Eritrea, one that has left an indelible mark on the collective Eritrean mind:

“Eritrea’s relations with the United States have been fraught from the outset. They have been both shaped and overshadowed by those with Ethiopia, and almost always to Eritrea’s disadvantage. At first, this was a result of the global projection of American force during and immediately after the Second World War. Then it was a product of Cold War calculations. More recently, it has been a consequence of the political calculus associated with the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’. In each case, the United States saw Ethiopia as its primary strategic ally in the Horn of Africa and tended to deal with Eritrea as something between a lesser asset and an afterthought. At worst – as at the height of the Cold War and again today – it was perceived as an obstacle to be either contained or sacrificed when its actions or articulated interests ran counter to those of Ethiopia and thereby the United States. This backdrop is well known to most Eritreans, however much they might wish it were otherwise. It must be the starting point for any new initiative from Washington intended to defuse tensions, restore trust and place the relationship with Asmara on a more positive footing.”8

Although a useful synopsis, Connell’s depiction is inaccurate in an important respect. At the outbreak of the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict the Clinton administration’s clear backing of Ethiopia could not have resulted from a “political calculus associated with the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’.” President Bush. had yet to be elected, his ‘war on terror’, September 11, 2001 not yet a factor. At that time Bush Jr. was either campaigning for his election, busy counting “hanging chads” in Florida, or fighting to be selected president in a popular election he had lost. Other factors may best explain the contentious outcome of the US-Eritrea relationship.

Leaving aside Washington’s reprehensible crimes against the people of Eritrea up to annexation, what followed during and after the struggle for independence is equally lamentable. The United States vehemently objected to Eritrea’s independence as late as 1991. Ambassador Cohen was adamant that Eritrea should remain part of Ethiopia. In his 28 February 1990 statement to the US Congress:

“Ethiopia will be able to achieve a durable peace only by means of a negotiated political solution. The outlines of that solution are not hard to see. Ethiopia must remain whole.”9

As a matter of policy and principle the US never really accepted independent Eritrea, and much of its behavior today is a product of that reality. Its position on Eritrea is adequately captured in a recently declassified White House document. An Oval Office meeting memorandum dated 24 July 1991(exactly two month after EPLF liberated all of Eritrea). The memo details a meeting between President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President George H. W. Bush (Bush Sr.). One of the two major discussion points on that meeting was President Mugabe’s attempt to intercede on behalf of Mengistu Hailemariam, the then deposed Ethiopian leader. Mugabe approaches the issue thusly:

“Mengistu is now in Zimbabwe. It is a real shocker for us. I talked to him, and he gave me the whole history of Ethiopia, of the Arabs trying to take over.” President Mugabe continues: “He [Mengistu] asked if it is still the view of the U.S. that Ethiopia is one country”?10

 In August 1989 Ambassador Cohen had already assured Mengistu of America’s commitment to preserve Ethiopia’s “territorial integrity” and keep Ethiopia intact.11 President Bush after musing on Mengistu’s characterization of events, requested Robert C. Frasure, the then Africa Director at the National Security Council, to respond to President Mugabe’s inquiry. Frasure along with Irvin Hicks, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, was a member of delegation that supposedly arranged for Mengistu to flee to Zimbabwe 12 and they were one of the last American delegates to visit him.13 They reportedly assured Mengistu that they were committed to Ethiopia’s “territorial integrity”. Mr. Frasure reply to Mugabe is  significant:

“With respect, President Mugabe, Mengistu is not being straight with you. We did try to arrange a provisional government. We were trying to do that in London after Mengistu fled the country. We were on the verge of an agreement when things fell apart in Addis.”14

 Mr. Frasure goes on:

“On Eritrea, it is a very tough problem. The fact is that the other side won a thirty year war and controls the place. Ideally we would like a united Ethiopia. But the situation on the ground is something we don’t control. If there is a referendum in two years, we and others will have to respect the results.”15 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
To read the remaining parts of the article follow link HERE
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses, Chapter XXXIX, The Same Incidents Often
[2] The Horn of Africa: Myths, Misconceptions and Reality, Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 17(3), Amare Tekle
[3] PIA letter to UNSC dated 03 December 2013
[4] Herman H. Cohen, December 16, 2013, Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold­‐to-­‐bring-­‐eritrea-­‐in-­‐from-­‐the-­‐
[5] Princeton Lyman followed suit a day later, on 14 January 2014,
[6] Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry with its fulminations on 28 December 2013
[7] Dan Connell, 1991, Against All Odds
[8] Dan Connell, 2009, Eritrea and the United States: towards a new US policy
[9] Quote After, Ruth Iyob, 1995, The Eritrean Struggle for Independence: Domination, Resistance, Nationalism
[10] Declassified (August 2009), A July 24, 1991, Memorandum of Conversation, Oval Office Meeting with President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, The President George W. H. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Robert C. Frasure.
[11] Margot Light, 1993, Troubled Friendships: Moscow’s Third World Venture
[12] See also 22 December 1999, BBC story “US admits helping Mengistu escape”
[13] By Jane Perlez, May 2, 1991, New York Times, U.S. Team Seeking Exodus of Ethiopian Jews
[14] Declassified (August 2009), A July 24, 1991, Memorandum of Conversation, Oval Office Meeting with President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, The President George W. H. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Robert C. Frasure.
[15] Declassified (August 2009), A July 24, 1991, Memorandum of  Conversation, Oval Office Meeting with President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, The President George W. H. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Robert C. Frasure.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –