Biden’s diplomacy push meets its match as Ethiopia unravels

WASHINGTON — Visa bans. Trade restrictions. Threats of economic sanctions. And visit after visit from top emissaries, including a U.S. senator bearing a message from President Joe Biden.

For a year, U.S. officials have used these and other instruments in their diplomacy toolbox to persuade, push and pressure Ethiopia’s government and rebel forces to end a vicious civil war believed to have killed thousands of people, left hundreds of thousands starving and displaced millions.

But nothing is working. And things are getting worse.

In recent days, several rebel groups are reported to have formed an alliance while heading toward Addis Ababa, the bustling capital of Ethiopia and the headquarters of the African Union. They threaten to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose troops now stand suspected of war crimes. State Department officials, fresh off dealing with the chaos in Afghanistan, are now urging Americans in Ethiopia to leave while also scaling back embassy staffing there.

The fighting in the once relatively stable country of 115 million people, one of Africa’s most populous, is testing Biden’s “diplomacy first” approach to foreign affairs. The results so far underscore just how limited America’s non-military tools can be when it comes to ending overseas conflicts, especially when a U.S. military role is not a realistic option and wouldn’t necessarily help anyway.

The Biden administration’s policy, in the words of a senior State Department official, is running smack into the reality that the parties to the conflict, including Abiy, appear “rigid” and “unmovable.” And, in all fairness, the ultimate responsibility for ending the civil war and the humanitarian disaster it has spawned falls on the Ethiopians fighting it, not on the United States.

Still, Biden aides keep calling for ceasefires and peace talks, despite ample evidence that the battling parties are not buying the U.S. refrain that there is “no military solution” to the conflict.

“With the safety and security of millions in the balance, and more than 900,000 facing conflict-induced famine-like conditions, we prevail upon all forces to lay down their arms and open dialogue to maintain the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Thursday.

U.S. lawmakers, too, are stepping up their role. A bipartisan set of prominent U.S. senators this week unveiled legislation that, among other things, mandates sanctions on individuals involved in the conflict.

Among the bill’s authors is Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and Biden confidant with history of interest in African issues. Earlier this year, Coons went to Ethiopia to meet with Abiy, delivering a letter from Biden. But his peacemaking efforts have been stifled.

“One year into this brutal and tragic conflict, Ethiopia is facing a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe and spreading civil war,” Coons said in a statement Thursday. He said the new legislation will “punish actors that continue to fuel violence, violate human rights, and undermine a democratic, peaceful, and unified Ethiopia.”

Exception to the Africa rule

Africa hands often complain about how little attention the continent’s 50-plus countries receive in Washington. Even when African states do get the notice of U.S. officials and media, it’s often through the lens of power plays in another part of the world, such as the Middle East or China.

But the conflict in Ethiopia has been an exception: It has received significant, high-level attention from U.S. officials for many months. In May, for instance, Biden took the unusual step of issuing a standalone statement about Ethiopia, saying he was “deeply concerned.”

“The United States urges Ethiopia’s leaders and institutions to promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism,” Biden said. “Doing so will preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the state, and ensure the protection of the Ethiopian people and the delivery of urgently needed assistance.”

The current fighting is rooted in a political dispute between Abiy and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the political faction that dominates the Tigray region in Ethiopia’s north, along the Eritrean border. That party was a huge force in Ethiopian politics for decades until it was sidelined a few years ago in events that brought to power Abiy and his supporters.

Abiy took office in 2018, later winning the Nobel for ending a lengthy territorial dispute with neighboring Eritrea. His various political reforms and other moves didn’t, however, lead to harmony with the TPLF. Fighting between TPLF forces and Ethiopian federal troops erupted in November 2020 after a dispute over the Tigray region’s decision to hold an election. Eritrean troops joined the fight on Abiy’s side.

Efforts to reach Ethiopian embassy officials in Washington, D.C., were not immediately successful.

United Nations officials, citing a recent investigation, said all sides involved in the conflict had committed abuses, with some potentially rising to the level of war crimes or crimes against humanity. State Department officials are examining whether atrocities have been committed. Blinken, who spoke out on the crisis during the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, has used the term “ethnic cleansing,” drawing a denial from the Ethiopian government.

The United States has, as is standard, issued statements of concern calling for an end to the fighting. The Biden team also named Jeff Feltman, a veteran diplomat, as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa. He has repeatedly visited the region, where coup-hit Sudan also is a flashpoint; he is in Ethiopia this past week, where he met with Abiy.

The Biden administration also has, in a step-by-step fashion, upped the pressure on the various parties to the conflict.

In May, it announced visa bans on certain individuals linked to the crisis; it also imposed what Blinken described as “wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance” while keeping humanitarian aid going. In June, Biden successfully pushed for the inclusion of a reference to Ethiopia in the G7 summit’s official communique.

The administration weeks later imposed economic sanctions on an Eritrean military leader for his role in the Tigray conflict. In September, Biden issued an executive order that authorized an array of economic sanctions that could be applied to actors in the conflict. So far, the U.S. hasn’t imposed sanctions under that framework, hoping that the mere threat could cause some to think twice about their moves.

And earlier this month, Biden took steps toward stopping Ethiopia from benefiting from a major trade program known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act due to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” AGOA offers “eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. market” for hundreds of products, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Biden also has discussed Ethiopia with counterparts from other African countries, some of whom have urged an end to the conflict.

Abiy’s willingness to meet with Feltman on Friday was a good sign — after all, the Ethiopian prime minister snubbed USAID chief Samantha Power when she visited in August — but there’s no serious indication that he’s willing to call off his fight against the rebels.

Just days ago, Abiy called on Ethiopian citizens to take up arms and help “bury” the approaching rebel forces, raising the specter of bloody urban warfare.

Pressed as to why nothing seems to be forcing the rebels or Abiy to defuse the crisis, a senior State Department official seemed to allude to the laws of physics.

“The problem is that you have multiple objects that heretofore have proven largely unmovable,” the official said. “It remains to be seen whether the shifting dynamic will cause at least one of those objects to show a little more flexibility.”

Getting Americans out

One top priority for the State Department has been ensuring the safety of its staff, as well as other Americans who might get caught in the conflict.

The department has issued multiple notices urging Americans in Ethiopia to leave the country, especially while commercial flights are still available. The department has even engaged the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, including asking media outlets that cater to that community to amplify its warnings about the situation.

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has started reducing its staffing, though at this stage there’s no decision to shut the mission down, the senior State Department official said.

“We are carefully, carefully, carefully monitoring the security situation,” the official said, acknowledging that closing the embassy is not out of the question if conditions deteriorate.

But, the official added in a nod to the diplomacy-first philosophy, “we also know that if we’re going to make progress, we’ll have a better shot diplomatically if we have diplomats on the ground.”

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