The current crisis in Ethiopia predates Joe Biden’s presidency by a couple months but, to Biden’s credit, he wasted little time in seeking diplomatically to head off the growing disaster. In March 2021, for example, he dispatched his former senate colleague and friend Sen. Chris Coons to meet with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Biden’s selection of Coons—a man who had and continues to have the president’s ear—signaled the importance with which Biden took stability in Ethiopia.
Coons’ mission failed for a simple reason: Abiy believed he could achieve more militarily. Abiy miscalculated, however. He overestimated the Ethiopian Army’s strength and underestimated the Tigrayan Defense Forces’ resilience. Anger also got the best of Abiy. In a fit of pique, he rebuffed USAID administrator Samantha Power, and Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. diplomat and UN official whom Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed his special envoy for the Horn of Africa, has also had little success. If anything, and through no fault of Feltman, the situation has worsened during his tenure as special envoy. Abiy’s Ethiopia is now akin to Théodore Sindikubwabo’s Rwanda; genocide looms and with the press blackout in place, may already have begun.
Where Blinken and Feltman are responsible is for the myopia with which they approach the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia may be the biggest state, but it is not the only one. While Feltman and his team approach Abiy with increasing desperation, they ignore other countries in the region where even minor diplomatic interventions could have a permanent, positive impact.
Eritrea. In May 2021, Feltman traveled to Asmara to ask Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki to withdraw Eritrean troops from northern Ethiopia. Begging Afwerki not to interfere—when Abiy greenlighted the Eritrean intervention in the first place and when Afwerki profits from Tigray’s looting—is about as effective as begging Hezbollah or Iran to respect Syria’s sovereignty and withdrawal their forces. Successful strategy requires more than supplication, especially with a regime like Afwerki’s.
Fortunately, the Eritrean Research Institute for Policy and Strategy (ERIPS), an organization to which many Eritrean intellectuals and professionals contribute, has outlined specific pressure points the United States could leverage in order to compel improvements in Eritrean behavior. For example, ERIPS points out that the Biden administration could interfere with the collection of the two percent income tax Eritrea seeks to extort and collect from Eritrean Americans in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. There is no corollary here to U.S. collection of taxes from Americans abroad. First, the United States not punish family members of American citizens abroad and, second, the U.S. bases its taxation policy on citizenship rather than ethnicity. Afwerki depends upon this revenue and would have difficulty maintaining the dictatorship if he could not use that cash to coopt key military and security personnel.
Blinken and Feltman might also work with the United Nations to implement a comprehensive arms blockade on Eritrea, alongside the Ethiopian government. This might mean some tough conversations with the United Arab Emirates and Turkey which for profit or otherwise, facilitate Abiy’s murderous campaign. Eritrea also relies on Emirati and Saudi support for its own military adventures in Tigray and its environs. The Biden administration could also use the Magnitsky Act among other legal tools to sanction People’s Front for Democracy and Justice Party leader Yemane Gebreab, economic adviser Hagos Ghebrehiwet (Kisha), and Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed. The Treasury Department should also target Party-run corporations such as the Red Sea Corporation and trace in order to freeze the Eritrean government’s dollar-denominated transactions worldwide. A comprehensive strategy would also deny mining companies that work in Eritrea and take advantage of forced labor access to U.S. financial markets. The Biden administration might also crack down on Eritrean operations in the United States that the Eritrean community says Asmara conducts through the Eritrean Cultural & Civic Center (ECCC). Tax filings show individuals listed as board members in ECCC’s tax or other filings are employees of the Eritrean Embassy or members of the handpicked members of the ruling party. In effect, the Eritrean government seeks to skirt foreign lobby laws in much the same way that leaked emails suggest the FBI suspected Erdoğan government did through the Turkish Heritage Organization. Simply put, any Horn strategy that ignores Eritrea is about as like to succeed as any policy toward Northeast Asia that ignores North Korea’s destabilizing role.
Somaliland. Not everything must be punitive. Happily, the region also has its success stories. Feltman has reportedly declined invitations to visit Somaliland, however, the most successful country in the region, albeit unrecognized. Feltman’s excuse—he does not have time—is not credible given that multiple commercial flights fly into Hargeisa per day. Rather, Feltman’s reasoning is more likely born of a desire to avoid the appearance of implying U.S. recognition of Somaliland. This is disingenuous, however. While Donald Yamamoto, the recently retired U.S. ambassador to Somalia and a former acting assistant secretary of State for Africa, sought to isolate Somaliland, prior to his tenure, American diplomats would visit Hargeisa regularly; they would just avoid getting their passports stamped. Feltman’s embrace of the Yamamoto doctrine also ignores the broader international community: the United Kingdom, Denmark, the European Union, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey each have consulates or offices in Somaliland even though none formally recognizes the country’s independence. To ignore the region’s only democracy and a country that has rejected China’s enticement in favor of Taiwan is to undermine U.S. interests. That Blinken and Feltman turn a deaf ear to Somaliland now, as a refugee crisis from Ethiopia looms, is diplomatic malpractice. It also puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage as China could leverage the United States military out of Djibouti at any time. Sometimes , the best diplomatic outcomes result from rewarding success rather than pouring money into failure.
Somalia. Doubling down on failure, however, has long defined U.S. policy toward Somalia. Like a gambler who believed that he could recover everything with just one more hand, Yamamoto kept pouring money into Mogadishu. The Farmaajo regime played him masterfully. The result today, however, is instability and a re-empowered Al Shabaab. Farmaajo, meanwhile, believes he can continue to play the State Department for fools by acquiescing to an electoral process that is neither one man, one vote nor free and fair in its delegate selection mechanism. Abiy’s misrule in Ethiopia is bad enough. Unless Feltman lays down the diplomatic law in Somalia and makes clear that the United States and its African allies will neither recognize any undemocratic extension of Farmaajo’s rule nor support his ambitions for a Siad Barre version 2.0 dictatorship, then the prognosis for Somalia may soon be as bad as Ethiopia.
Biden and Blinken have both declared “diplomacy is back.” The Horn of Africa may be the one place where the Biden administration’s rhetoric matches its reality. Unfortunately, a poorly crafted strategy undermines the chance for success. It is time for Blinken and Feltman to embrace a holistic strategy, one that recognizes that success or failure in the region rests upon more than just Ethiopia.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).