America’s Latest African Blunder

How an about-face on a boundary issue could destabilize an entire region.

John Bolton

Sometimes, authors of tell-all memoirs reveal even more than they realize. One such revelation comes on Page 347 of John Bolton’s Surrender Is Not an Option, published earlier this month. I doubt most reviewers noticed the line as they leafed through the book in search of the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ famous putdowns. But for anyone who follows events in the Horn of Africa, it had all the impact of a small explosion.

Bolton, whose contempt for the United Nations is only matched by his exasperation with the State Department, recounts the position Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer adopted in 2006 toward the “final and binding” ruling an international commission had reached over the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, the cause of a war that claimed some 90,000 lives.

“For reasons I never understood,” writes Bolton, “Frazer reversed course, and asked in early February to reopen the 2002 [Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission] decision, which she had concluded was wrong, and award a major piece of disputed territory to Ethiopia. I was at a loss how to explain that to the Security Council, so I didn’t.”

Why should this interest anyone outside the United Nations? Because, at a peculiarly sensitive moment in the Horn’s history, Bolton’s words confirm what those who follow U.S. policy in Africa sensed but could never prove: While presenting itself as a neutral player in a bitter contest between two African regimes, Washington has in fact played the old Cold War game, favoring realpolitik over international law—with disastrous results.

The decision Bolton cites was meant to settle where the fuzzy international frontier between Ethiopia and Eritrea really lay. While the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission allotted many areas Eritrea claimed to Ethiopia, the village of Badme, a flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war, went to Eritrea. It was a decision Addis Ababa found impossible to swallow. As Bolton writes, “Ethiopia had agreed on a mechanism to resolve the border dispute in 2000 and was now welching on the deal.”

What was at stake was never Badme village itself or its surrounding land. Nor, despite much trumpeting to that effect, was Ethiopia overly preoccupied by the fate of villagers whose settlements the EEBC line cut across. The standoff was all about wounded Ethiopian pride. Demarcation meant implicit recognition that the 1998-2000 war, which the Ethiopian army effectively won, was fought on a faulty premise. In Addis’ eyes, it also meant accepting arrogant Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki’s view of his tiny, strident nation as a significant regional player.

As a witness to the Algiers agreement that ended hostilities and established the EEBC, Washington has always publicly asserted its support for the commission’s ruling. That finding was never Frazer’s to challenge or change. No doubt her legal advisers warned her against the folly of trying to reopen a unanimous decision that took 13 months to reach, hence Washington’s subsequent silence on the matter.

But Washington has, in every other respect, made its bias clear. Having decided Ethiopia was the region’s linchpin state and a key ally in its campaign against Islamic extremism, it failed to pressure or punish Prime Minister Meles Zenawi when he defied international law. Ethiopia remains the biggest African recipient of U.S. aid—$500 million a year—and the strikes Washington launched at retreating Islamist fighters when Ethiopian forces overran Somalia last December illustrated the closeness of the two administrations’ military cooperation.

Bolton’s revelation could not come at a more sensitive time. The EEBC, which once planned to mark the line with cement pillars, says it considers its mission fulfilled at the end of this month. Exhausted by five years of Ethiopian foot-dragging, it intends to disband on Nov. 30, and the border will then be considered officially designated.

The fast-approaching deadline has both regimes in jittery mode. Eritrea accuses Addis of plotting to invade; Ethiopia denies this but has boosted military spending and warns that another war would be fought to the finish. Analysts say neither nation’s forces are in a fit state to reopen hostilities, but a quarter of a million heavily armed troops stand mustered at the border. The International Crisis Group, which regards the possibility of a new war as “very real,” has called for the United States to use its influence to rein in Addis and on the U.N. Security Council to reiterate its support for the EEBC ruling.

Washington, the only power that enjoys any effective leverage over Prime Minister Zenawi, appears to believe that in bolstering Ethiopia, it is backing a force for stability, a diplomatic approach that dates back to Emperor Haile Selassie’s era. The opposite is probably true, because the unsettled border issue has acted as a festering sore, infecting the entire region.

Stalemated on the border issue, the two leaders have continued to wage a proxy war in alternative venues, each supporting rebel movements committed to their rival’s downfall. Somalia has been the first major casualty of this cynical game: Eritrea’s arming of the Islamic Courts Union was regarded as intolerable provocation by Addis, which sent its tanks rolling in.

Having boasted last December that it could pacify Somalia within two weeks, Ethiopia is now confronting the same hearts-and-minds problem as U.S. troops in Baghdad. The hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees streaming out of Mogadishu, like the villagers emerging from the Ogaden region with tales of Ethiopian rape and plunder, will provide future Islamist movements with easy recruits.

But the reverberations of the EEBC debacle spread much further. Why, in the future, should any well-connected African state ever agree to obey an international ruling that finds in favor of a smaller, weaker rival?

Washington appears to have learned nothing from the past, when the decision to embrace unsavory African strongmen purely on the basis of their anti-Communist credentials proved the most short-sighted of investments. Now, just as then, such supposed pragmatism is proving counterproductive, turning an already unstable region into a war-torn, refugee-plagued, famine-afflicted recruiting ground for extremism.