Biden's opportunity in Ethiopia
The African country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. The new president should address it.
Americans are incurious at the best of times about the world around them. When our attention is taken up with domestic crises, real or imagined, we are the most insular people on the planet. As we stitched together fantasies of insurrection and civil war this month, the people of Ethiopia continued to experience the reality.
Fighting between government forces and a former political party based in the Tigray region has been ongoing since late last year. On November 4, Abiy Ahmed, the country's prime minister and the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, suspended power, internet, and phone service throughout the region. This has made it almost impossible for news agencies to report accurately, but we still have a broad idea of what is going on: a humanitarian crisis with millions of people displaced and starving as foreign aid is effectively blocked by government forces in cooperation with the military of neighboring Eritrea.
On Thursday, religious organizations began to circulate earlier reports from a Belgium-based humanitarian organization of a massacre at the Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, which the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful believe is the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. According to the report, as many as 750 people may have been killed in cold blood during what locals believe was an attempt to capture the Ark. This story, which I first encountered in a Catholic diocesan newspaper, remains unverified precisely because the international newswires cannot get close enough to the situation in Aksum to corroborate the details of what are almost certainly crimes against humanity.
Though his attention seems to be focused on a wide range of domestic questions, I believe that addressing the crisis in Ethiopia should number among President Biden's top priorities. After years of being told that the foreign policy of his predecessor, who somehow managed to be the first president in a decade and a half not to drag the United States into a major war or create an international refugee crisis, was reckless and irresponsible, it is time we were reminded what competence looks like.
The question is what exactly should be done. Though they are usually discussed as if they were of a piece, the two greatest foreign policy blunders of our time have very different causes. In Afghanistan, the United States entered without a clearly defined goal. Having failed to locate Osama bin Laden, we decided that instead of capturing the terrorists responsible for the attacks of September we were there to eradicate an ancient system of tribal government that became synonymous in our minds with the ruling Taliban regime. The war was, and remains, an intervention in search of a justification.
In Iraq we had the opposite problem. Our aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein was established from the beginning. What we did not bother to do was verify any of the relevant facts. On the basis of no evidence whatever, indeed actually in defiance of all known information, we simply assumed that the regime had amassed “weapons of mass destruction,” that wonderfully ambiguous phrase, and planned to use them against the United States or perhaps another country in the region.
If the Biden administration wishes to avoid both of these errors, it must be clear from the beginning that we intend to restore peace to a united Ethiopia, not to establish Tigray as an independent country that would almost certainly leave its people defenseless against hostile neighbors and encourage similar breakaway efforts that could imperil the surrounding region. A middle ground between full independence and Ahmed's heavy-handed (and possibly criminal) attempts to impose absolute centralization on Tigray must be sought. There is no point in intervening without a plan.
Whatever actions we take in pursuit of this overarching goal — the imposition of sanctions, calls for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces and prosecutions for war crimes almost certainly committed by both sides, the distribution of significant aid, infrastructure investment — must be informed by a secure understanding of the reality on the ground. Most of the undeniable atrocities committed in Tigray have been attributed to government and rebel forces by the respective opposing factions, and we cannot respond without better information than we have had since November. This is why Biden should establish a fact-finding mission as soon as possible.
For the new administration, Ethiopia is both a significant challenge and an opportunity. As long as American intervention abroad is synonymous with our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where only this week 50 people were killed in a suicide bombing, the logical if not the moral imperative will remain with Trumpian isolationists. It is, in fact, better to take no action at all than to make things worse through ill-considered measures.
Biden and his people claim to be the adults in the room. For the sake of the people in Tigray, I pray this is true.