One of the major stories out of Africa that almost no one seems to know about is the political, military and social history of the Horn of Africa in the last three decades. This is despite the fact of Black Hawk Down and so on.
I’m as culpable as anyone: I tend to give Ethiopian history a wide berth in my courses, as it is a deep literature that is (to my eye) somewhat set aside from the wider Africanist scholarship by virtue of its depth and particularism.
With all the attention to Darfur, Rwanda and other major crises in Africa, it’s still kind of odd that the international community (and the chattering classes here in the US) essentially let the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea simply slide by without much commentary. It was, to an eerie extent, a strong local parallel to World War I, both in the military particulars in the conflict and in the total pointlessness of it all. It had trench warfare with artillery and tank combat, massive casualties and extremely heavy fighting, and the frankly petty kinds of claims about national sovereignty and territorial authority that were involved in World War I.
In a way, I suppose I’m glad that the international community passed it by, as I don’t think there’s much anyone could have done about it anyway. But here we are again, facing another such conflict in the same region in the face: Ethiopia vs. the Islamist forces in Somalia. This is a good case where the simple-mindedness of neoconservative interventionism and realism really come up against their limits.
There is a need to imagine, somehow, that there is an avenue for intervention, some ability to negotiate a better outcome. If I have a grievance against diplomatic history as it has traditionally been written, it is that it invests in interstate processes a determinative power that is unwarranted. Simply put, this is a case (like quite a few others in the 20th Century) where states are central actors and yet I think there is almost no role for outside state (or interstate) actors to do much of anything that matters.
There certainly isn’t a simple moral position available to those who want to be players in the situation. Side with Ethiopia’s current rulers, with their dedicated hostility to liberal ideals of freedom and justice? With Somalia’s Islamicists? With the utterly bogus “legitimate” regime in Baidoa, that makes Vichy France look like a wildly popular and authentic government in tune with the entirety of its national citizenry?
To some degree, it really doesn’t matter who the United States sides with in an active way. Our earlier 1990s involvement in Somalia showed that (as does our current Iraq misadventure). Our military power provides little long-term ability to produce desired outcomes. And in this situation, even “soft power”, if we had any left, is worth almost nothing. The best thing I can suggest is staying a long distance away save to exercise direct and massive power at the few sites where our unmistakeable direct interests are involved. E.g., what I would suggest is that we contact the Islamicists in Somalia, say “As long as you don’t shelter people directly tied to al-Qaeda, we have no dog in this fight”, and mean it. If they do shelter individuals that we have a strong, unambiguous and unquestionable interest in, do your best to hit them directly. Don’t feed weapons and support to the Ethiopians, who are at best unreliable allies.
The alternative is yet another blow-back situation, where we try to perform sensitive surgery with blunt instruments and find ourselves shocked! shocked! that it rebounds against us. The truth is that the power states can apply consciously is nothing against either the complicatedly unconscious or ungoverned power of global economic and social institutions or against the power of local social histories. The sooner we recognize the narrow band within which deliberately applied state and interstate power actually produces meaningfully predictable results, the better off we’ll be. That’s not the “realism” of Kissinger et al, which basically translates to “We don’t want to worry about moral arguments”. The neoconservatives and radicals are right to reject that. It’s the realism of history and society, about understanding what kind of instruments state and interstate policy are, and the outcomes to which they meaningfully correspond.