War and Peace, Horn of Africa Edition

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.

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9 Responses to War and Peace, Horn of Africa Edition

  1. withywindle says:

    Since the Ethiopians and Somalians actually do have regular armies, surely the scenario “we provide airpower support to the Ethiopian army, but nothing else” is possible? Particularly if there is a successful Somalian land invasion of Ethiopia. (Which, since the part of Ethiopia bordering Somalia is Muslim-inhabited, as I recollect, is a possibility.)

    I strongly doubt the Somalians will do anything the US wants short of the exercise of a level of military force that you fear. I think you also underestimate the value of preventing particular outcomes, regardless of whether the subsequent outcomes are precisely what you want. (I, for one, remain delighted that Hussein’s Iraq is gone, and that the prospect of a revived Baathist Iraq dwindles by the day. The Iraq we have is by no means my ideal, but the Iraq we got rid of is well worth the ridding.) As usual, I remain entirely dubious of your much-vaunted realism, which shades off so easily into fatalistic unwillingness to act. If you could provide a list of occasions in recent decades where you thought the exercise of US military power was both appropriate and effective–and that you supported beforehand–it would lend some credibility to your supposedly “realistic” critique.

    Meanwhile, aren’t you blasting both neoconservatives and realists prematurely? So far as I can tell, no one in any position of power, or in the chattering classes, has said anything about Somalia recently save “Looks unpleasant. Let’s see what develops.” I suppose I hope the US has been having administrative contacts with the Ethiopians–and, yes, I hope they are considering providing them arms–but I fancy they’re still in the mulling and dickering stages so far as any major support is concerned. So given that everybody concerned is saying “Wait and see,” why are you accusing anyone of being simpleminded?

  2. withywindle says:

    Oh, yes … I’ll mention here (again?) the most underplayed Bush administration success of recent years. Whatever that crisis was in Liberia a few years back, when the New York Times and the other idiots suddenly sent up a cry that the US must land our entire armed forces immediately. Front Page Moral Condemnation of Bush for Not Doing Enough! And he sent 2,000 Marines to hover offshore of Monrovia while getting some African troops in to eject the relevant thug. Who was duly ejected, as the local Liberians acted with a due weather-eye to the offshore Marines. After which, the yappers of the press went on to their next Outrage of the Day, forgot about Liberia, and as far as I can tell Liberia went back to low-level awfulness (presumably our policy objective, as a preferable alternative to high-level awfulness) and the Marines sailed away. I think, Mr. Burke, that you should always cite the minimal and calibrated Bush intervention in Liberia, conducted against the yapping of the press, as an excellent and highly successful example of the sort of “realist” policy you advocate.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    To give you an example of what has already been done in Somalia, we threw a goodly amount of resources into trying to prop up the warlords when it became clear that the Islamicists were close to gaining control of Mogadishu recently. This had the exact opposite effect of what presumably was intended, significantly strengthening the Islamicists and garnering them considerable popular support, not the least of which because they seemed to bring order to a situation that had long been profoundly in flux.

  4. withywindle says:

    And we should have done … *nothing* as the Islamicists came to power? Sorry, yes, there was that. But I thought you were talking about US policy vis-a-vis an Ethiopian-Somalian war, not about intervention in Somalian internal politics. They are distinct cases.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. Nothing.

    Which would be the same for an Ethiopian-Somalian war. Nor are they distinct: that would be my point. The current situation is a *product* of clumsy intervention. Not just in internal Somalian politics: we’re also urging, and likely organizing, a substantial Ethiopian military presence *already* on the ground in Baidoa. The US is playing a significant role in provoking the war, not trying to ameliorate or prevent its occurance.

  6. withywindle says:

    Well, it would be nice to think we were that proactive, though I suspect the Ethiopian government probably had some sense on its own that the Islamicists in Somalia were an unpleasant bunch. But I hope you’re correct about your suspicions.

    I go back to wanting that list of military interventions you favored beforehand, and think of as effective and appropriate. Wondering if the list is greater than zero. Wondering if you’ll acknowledge Liberia as Burkean intervention. I have a great sense of wonder.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure. I think that was well done.

  8. john theibault says:

    As a complete outsider, one of the most striking things about the diplomatic history of post-colonial Africa is the absence of much border change. Aside from the South African Bantustans, Eritrean Independence is the only new international border I can think of. There’s presumably a literature on this I’m not aware of. Is the conflict in the Horn of Africa and Darfur incursions into Chad a precursor of interstate wars for changing borders on the continent?

  9. withywindle says:

    I will defer to Prof. Burke should he contradict me … but I’d guess there’s no need to bother with changing the formal borders, since states and factions can project power regardless of the formal borders. E.g., what’s gone on in West Africa and Congo the last decade. I don’t have a sense that Ethiopia-Somalia and Chad are all that different (as yet) from what’s gone before.

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