Yes, It’s Policy

Josh Trevino is none too happy with my Ethiopia commentary. Trevino knows a good deal more about Africa than I do and has some experience with recent American policymaking on that continent. Thus, even though I disagree with the general thrust of his commentary, let me recommend his Christmas afternoon post on the war which confirms the basic point that these events are tied to deliberate American policies. He also usefully spells out the basic strategic thinking here. His take on Ethiopia’s July intervention:

Ethiopia has reason to fear the ascent of the ICU. In addition to the ordinary concerns that a neighboring Islamist state might bring, Ethiopia itself has a significant Somali population within its borders. The proportion of Somalis in Ethiopia is not especially large — about 6% — but they inhabit and dominate the strategically important Ogaden region. Furthermore, despite its historic Christian identity, modern Ethiopia actually has a Muslim plurality of nearly half. The combination of Somali nationalism plus Islamization is one that the Ethiopian state can hardly afford. Were an ICU-style movement to gain traction within Ethiopia, a Muslim Ethiopia reflecting demography — and demographic trends — is more than conceivable. Add to this the (probably spurious) Ethiopian conviction that the ICU is aided by longtime enemy Eritrea, and the case for intervention becomes overwhelming.

Trevino describes “the defense of the transitional government” as offering “a veneer of legality,” “but it is only that” — a veneer. From the American point of view, Trevino says:

The American rationale for this war is remarkably similar to the Ethiopian: we have a compelling interest in the eradication of an Islamist state of any type, anywhere in the world. That the Somali ICU has requested and received foreign jihadi assistance only bolsters the case for its eradication: we should know better by now than to permit an unmolested mixing of Islamists from around the world. The rise of the Somali Islamists also illustrates rather well the intersection of Muslim states’ complicity in the expansion of jihadism around the world: according to the CSM, “a UN Monitoring Group report has charged that Eritrea, Egypt, Djibouti, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan have all contributed funds, arms, and technical support to help Somalia’s Islamists take control.” This is a combination that neither Ethiopia nor America can ignore.

Which is just to say that for all our disagreements on the merits of this policy, Trevino and I agree on the basic shape of the situation — it is American policy to encourage Ethiopian intervention into Somalia and to use Ethiopia as a proxy to combat the Islamic Courts Union. What’s more, just as Spencer and I were suggesting yesterday, despite vague claims about Somalia harboring terrorists, the actual concern here isn’t any specific instances of ICU harboring anyone in particular. Rather, it’s a general concern about the need to combat Islamist political movements whenever and wherever they arise.


Trevino thinks my trepidation about this policy stems from specific partisanship, which I think is fairly ridiculous. Criticizing the Bush administration’s conduct in the Horn of Africa isn’t going to achieve anything for the Democratic Party, which is precisely why you don’t see Democratic elected officials doing it.

Simply put, it seems to me that this kind of proxy-based approach to world policy is fairly ill-advised. The tendency in these situations is for the tail to wag the dog and the United States to end up involved in conflicts that have very little to do with actual American interests. Our clearest concrete interest in this matter seems to me to be the presence of a very small number of people involved in previous anti-American plots in Somalia. The best way to obtain those suspects would have been to try to cooperate with the ICU in securing custody over them. Having us instead back Ethiopia’s regional ambitions is a good way to serve Ethiopian policy goals, but accomplishes little for the United States unless American interests in the Horn are simply defined as helping Ethiopia do whatever it wants, which is precisely the tail-wags-dog scenario that worries me.