Does the Departure of Jeffrey Feltman Signal a Change of Course in the US’s Foreign Policy?

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It seems Jeffery Feltman, the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa (HOA), will be leaving his post soon. Reports indicate he will be replaced by the former US ambassador to Turkey (June 27, 2019-Dec 10, 2021) David Satterfield. Some in the Ethiopian body politic have speculated, Feltman’s departure was a win for Ethiopian diplomacy given the G.O.E (Government of Ethiopia) has stood its ground and TPLF military advance has been reversed even with US overt and covert assistance. However, given reports that Feltman’s departure was pre-planned since he took this job for a short-term stint, does his departure really mean anything? Although there are many individuals in the Biden administration with previous cozy relationships with the TPLF, can we ascribe the misguided US policies towards Ethiopia solely on that? Or is there a larger geo-strategic foreign policy the US is implementing?

To get a better picture of what the future holds with a new special envoy, it is important to compare and contrast:

  1. The current US policy towards Ethiopia and HOA in general and what its policy had been in the past few decades and the reasoning behind them. And how much both Amb. Feltman and Amb. Satterfield will influence that policy.
  2. Ethiopia’s body politic under TPLF (pre-2018) and post-TPLF (2018-present) (Current gov).

TPLF As a US Foreign Policy Errand Boy

In the post cold war era, the US’s policy towards Africa was one of “victorious” abandonment and at times propping up some authoritarians in a few geo-strategic locations. TPLF was a beneficiary of America’s anti-soviet crusade, aiding armed groups that were fighting Soviet supported regimes. It was also a beneficiary of the US’s new post cold-war incoherent policy since its rise to power in 1991. Later on, in the post 9/11 era, the US foreign policy was singularly focused on counter-terrorism efforts. Any regime that subscribed to this crusade was considered a US ally. No entity exploited this opportunity better than the TPLF. Given Ethiopia’s geo-strategic location, TPLF became the primary ally of the US in the HOA in the fight against terrorism. It’s brutal hegemonic rule and the large security apparatus that came with it meant it could not only silence its opposition and the populace but it was also shortsightedly interpreted by the US as a measure of “stability” and a tool in the US’s arsenal in the fight against terrorism in the HOA.

The TPLF was willing to do the US’s bidding as long as the US helped in propping it up in power. The infamous 2005 Ethiopian election is a primary example of this strategy. The TPLF committed electoral fraud, imprisoned its opposition and journalists, and massacred hundreds of protestors on the streets of the capital. If the rhetoric of America’s commitment to democratic and human rights value was to be believed, this act would have made the TPLF regime a pariah in the eyes of the politicians at the Capitol. But all the US needed was to see TPLF’s commitment to the counter-terrorism effort.

In 2006, the late Meles Zenawi, the then Prime Minister of the TPLF led government, announced that he was sending Ethiopian troops to invade Somalia to fight terrorism. That invasion cemented TPLF’s irreplaceable place in the Horn when it comes to the US’s geo-strategic interests. The US reciprocated by legitimizing and propping up the TPLF regime for the next decade. The US position was manifested in the lavish eulogy Susan Rice and Jeffrey Feltman delivered on Meles Zenawi’s funeral to the legitimacy President Obama gave to TPLF by calling it “a democratically elected government” although TPLF had just claimed to have won 100% of the parliamentary seats in the sham 2015 election. In a press briefing, Susan Rice could not even control her laughter after declaring she believed the TPLF led EPRDF legitimately won 100% of the seats in the election. Somalia is still dealing with the aftermath of that invasion.

The Recent Turn-around in US’s Foreign Policy

However, during the end of Pres. Trump’s administration and at the beginning of Biden administration’s, the US diplomatic, military and intelligence establishment was finalizing a proposal on a shift on the general US geo-strategic interests in the world. The US had spent two decades on a blind crusade of fighting terrorism in the world from invading nations to using proxy regimes to fight terrorism when it was over extended. Fighting through proxies meant the US had given up some agency, relying on its “allies” to craft their own methods and policies to “stabilize” their prospective regions. It also had been blind to China’s rise and now was facing the prospect of losing its sole superpower status. America was being challenged and a new multi-polar world order was dawning unless it acted swiftly in stemming the rise of Chinese influence.

One of the primary regions the US intended to implement its new policy was the HOA. This was outlined in a 2019/2020 bipartisan report/recommendation on “Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena” published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The departing US special envoy to the HOA, Jeffrey Feltman, participated in producing this report. The report noted “a strategy based solely on playing defense — that is, one predicated on counterterrorism and providing security and economic support to regimes that avoid close collaboration with China or Russia — or acting through proxies will not be enough to advance US interests in the context of the trends described.” To achieve this goal, the report also noted that the US should have 4 pillars in its policy towards the Horn.

  1. A political and diplomatic strategy to inoculate the Horn of Africa against the fallout of Middle Eastern rivalries
  2. Structural reforms to overcome the bureaucratic seams within the US government; Designate a special envoy with responsibility for the Red Sea arena
  3. Realignment of US assistance to promote inclusive, legitimate governance and economic growth; Designate the Horn of Africa as a priority region under the Global Fragility Act (2019)
  4. Active congressional engagement; Strengthen coordination among the relevant congressional bodies on both a transregional (i.e., Africa and Middle East) and interdisciplinary (i.e., foreign affairs, armed services, appropriations) basis.

If these recommendations sound familiar, it’s not a coincidence. The Biden administration seems to have incorporated them into its broader foreign policy agenda.

The report defines what “inoculating” the HOA from Middle Eastern rivalries means as the US taking up its place as the primary influencer in the region instead of using proxies as in the past. “The United States remains the sole external actor capable of tempering these influences to prevent outcomes inimical to US interests.” The issue of Middle Eastern influence on Ethiopia is a primary example of this US new strategy to counter that influence. Since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy’s administration has had a close relationship with the UAE. It has also fostered peace with Eritrea which already had a long term relationship with Middle East nations like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Tripartite alliance formed by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia was an extension of this configuration in the HOA but was a threatening parallel institution to the already established HOA trade, development and security bloc, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The US had long fostered some influence on the region through IGAD, which TPLF’s leader and the late PM of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, played an essential role in forming.

At the start of the war, after TPLF’s attack on the Ethiopian National Defence Forces Northern command, the UAE has allegedly helped the GoE by providing drones to counter TPLF’s terrorist attack to reinstate its hegemonic rule. The US for its part heaped an extensive and successful diplomatic pressure on the UAE to cut drone access to Ethiopia. As the war escalated after the US weakened the capabilities of GoE, the GoE looked to its allies again in the UAE. It also forged new military alliances with Turkey and Russia. In Nov 2021, as US media and political institutions overly exaggerated TPLF advances on “the capital”, the GoE allied forces, aided by their new military capabilities, successfully reversed the advance. TPLF was routed in Amhara and Afar and shortly announced its retreat to Tigray. A humiliating defeat for TPLF and its western patrons.

At the time Jeffrey Feltman was busy visiting Ankara and Dubai, to push for a halt of any military aid or sale to the GoE. This is where it’s critical to raise the incoming special envoy taking over from Feltman, Amb. David Satterfield’s diplomatic past. He’s the former US Ambassador to Turkey and has extensive experience in the Middle East including working extensively in Iraq. It is easy to derive, Amb Satterfield was tapped to build upon Feltman’s work of laying the groundwork for the new American policy towards HOA and the Middle East. As the 2019/2020 report proposes, “US interests will be undercut in both the Horn of Africa and in the Middle East if Washington fails to consider the Red Sea as an interconnected region and if US policies toward the Horn and the Middle East continue to be developed and executed in isolation from one another.”

The report also recommends that the US should designate the HOA as a priority region under the global fragility act passed by congress in 2019. The State Department in its new global fragility strategy document noted “Fragility poses threats to the United States and U.S. interests, allies, and partners”. It notes that the US will pursue “a different approach from previous efforts” demonstrating a shift in American foreign policy. It also highlights “Rather than diffuse open-ended efforts, the United States will engage selectively based on national interests, host-nation political progresses, and defined metrics” indicating the US will pursue a more hands-on interventionist foreign policy as its new approach. Then, the question becomes: Does the US see Ethiopia as a fragile, unstable nation? And if so, is that why it is taking a hands-on interventionist approach including seemingly supporting an act of regime change?

TPLF’s Sly Maneuvers to Reclaim Addis Ababa and the US’s Partisan Role in the Conflict

Since its overthrow by a popular movement in 2018, TPLF has worked to weaken the Ethiopian state or at least portray the nation as “fragile” under the new government. It had purposely fomented ethnic tensions, and funded and aided terrorist organizations like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), leading to terrorist attacks on civilians especially ethnic Amharas in the Oromia Region. This intentional destabilization was perpetrated to give the impression that the country was not only unstable but also on the verge of collapse/disintegration. TPLF wanted to create a narrative that it was the only entity inside Ethiopia that has proven itself as the sole guarantor of stability by being the conduit of communication between ethnic groups. After 3 years of fomenting instability all over the country, the TPLF launched a military attack on Ethiopian defense forces hoping to re-institute itself back in Addis Ababa.

Through the course of the war, it was easy for Ethiopians to notice that the US was playing a partisan role. The US was engaged in whitewashing TPLF’s heinous crimes and selectively putting pressure on the GoE and the nation as a whole. The US pressure ranged from placing crippling sanctionsremoving Ethiopia from African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), placing an arms embargo on the nation to lobbying around the Middle East not to engage in military aid or trade with Ethiopia. It is important to note that the US has yet to place any significant sanctions on the TPLF or entities that fund it. It was also noticeable that the US purposely retreats into silence whenever TPLF makes military advancements but is quick to make defamatory pronouncements on the GoE every time TPLF is pushed back by Ethiopian allied forces. The purpose of all this is clear, the US intends to equalize the playing field for the TPLF.

The US recognizes that the TPLF is despised by the majority of Ethiopians. So, what’s the purpose of aiding it in its destructive quest while also suggesting that the “TPLF shouldn’t advance on the capital”? As the spokesperson for the TPLF, Getachew Reda, announced recently, the US had advised them to create an ethnic based coalition before advancing on the capital. It is to be remembered the TPLF did announce an overly publicized (by US media) coalition with OLA & 7 other unknown individuals claiming to represent different ethnic groups at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. It seems that the US is assisting in recreating a new version of 1991, where the TPLF creates a coalition party but proceeds to dominate from the inside. This time the illusion is that Ethiopia will be dealing with a weak central coalition government while the TPLF retreats to a semi-autonomous Tigray where it becomes the de facto US ally. The new shadow capital of the nation becomes Mekelle, and the TPLF once again becomes the guarantor of stability in Ethiopia through a much more sophisticated “invisible” hegemonic rule thrust upon Ethiopia.

When one sees the picture from the above vantage point, it seems the US has a broader foreign policy plan, no matter how misguided. A change of a few personnel then is not indicative of any significant shift in how the US will approach Ethiopia and the HOA in general. Feltman’s departure will not make any difference. The trend from the past two years and now with the new incoming special envoy seems to imply the US is doubling down on its policy towards Ethiopia.

A Multi-Pronged Approach the GoE Should Follow to Position Ethiopia Better

The solution to our predicament should be multi-faceted. Standing our ground cannot be our sole strategy. At this moment the GOE should have three priorities

  1. Any state that needs Ethiopia’s help or partnership in Ethiopia needs to know the GOE is the only legitimate representative of the country. Foreign powers will use TPLF as a tool to pressure Ethiopia against its own national interest or even worse become an agent of regime change. The GOE should not allow that. To that end, the GOE needs to have an unwavering commitment to end the war in TPLF’s total defeat and complete disarmament. We are already seeing warning signs after the government decided not to cross into the Tigray region. TPLF has had time to reorganize and open war on multiple battlefronts despite its claim that it’s “giving peace a chance”. The government’s indecisiveness and questionable commitment to finishing this war is prolonging it.
  2. The GOE needs to prove that it can stabilize the country. Stabilizing the country is related to the above point. The GOE needs to take back its monopoly of violence. It needs to disarm armed terrorist groups like OLA and TPLF which are wrecking havoc on civilians leading to Ethiopia having one of the largest IDP’s in the world. The GOE’s failure to reorganize and beef up its security apparatus, which was dominated by TPLF for decades, to integrate regional special forces to the national defense forces, and to hold criminals who took part in terrorist acts to account has led to widespread violence. The government’s recent decision to release captured TPLF high ranking officials is a great example. The government’s weak will to persecute these criminals will only embolden terrorist organizations to proliferate as a means to get a political dispensation they desire. These actions will also make the government lose credibility among a public exhausted by constant violence. The GoE needs to show that the country is a stable nation by ably protecting civilians from terrorist organization like the TPLF and OLA.
  3. Although the GOE needs to be uncompromising in the national interest and sovereign integrity of Ethiopia, it also needs to engage the US in a constructive manner. The nation’s diplomatic institutions were dominated by the TPLF and their capabilities used for addressing TPLF’s interests for three decades. Thus, it is not any wonder now that with TPLF’s departure, the institution was found wanting and is struggling to represent Ethiopian interests. It’s also easy to note the current seemingly coordinated diplomatic campaign against Ethiopia is partly due to TPLF’s ingrained diplomatic web around the world developed through three decades. The GOE needs to swiftly restructure its ministry of foreign affairs if efforts in this regard are not already underway. Ethiopia has countless experienced career diplomats that have been pushed away from their country or the diplomatic arena by TPLF. It is time the government considered bringing them in to train and build its diplomatic capabilities. The only solution to show that Ethiopia is a reliable partner is to engage diplomatically and convince our partners.

contributor: Fitsum Fekade

This piece benefited from comments by Tilahun Emiru and Yohanes Molla

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