June 13, 2011 | National Interest Online

Symbolism and Realpolitik

 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 célèbre 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.