By Abebe Gellaw
Updated on August 10, 2021
USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s much-hyped mission to Ethiopia flopped on her arrival. What awaited her was not a fanfare of warm reception that American officials are normally guaranteed. She was given the cold shoulder. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed snubbed her in a stinging manner even though she had requested to meet with him ahead of time. So did his deputy and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen. She was left in the room with lower-level officials.
It was regrettable that she was not able to show off her political power play skills, using aid as leverage. She had also hoped to deliver a stern message from President Joe Biden. The message seems to be, “Sit down and talk to TPLF terrorists right now.” It is a hard sell.
“As you know, he [Prime Minister Abiy] was not in the capital today on my day here,” she told reporters at Sheraton Addis last Wednesday. Given the fact that she was talking menacingly, in a highly biased and patronizing way, the snub was not a surprise. “All options are on the table,” she said, speaking about US intervention and opening a so-called humanitarian corridor from Sudan.
Ethiopia is supposed to be a key U.S. ally in need of support to defend itself from TPLF’s massive terrorist attacks that ignited a cataclysmic war and deal with the humanitarian consequences. Instead, the Biden administration started issuing confusing and suspicious statements. The administration appointed Jeffrey Feltman as a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Feltman is reportedly playing hardball. So Power is teaming up with Feltman to increase the heat of the pressure cooker on the Ethiopian government, which has already faced an existential threat from a homegrown terrorist group and the devastating consequences of a war ignited by TPLF’s audacious terrorist attacks.
As a result of her undiplomatic overtures using the press and social media as a megaphone, Power’s Twitter feed quickly filled with messages from Ethiopians angrily challenging her biased interventionist posturing. One of her efforts has reportedly been pushing for the opening of a so-called humanitarian corridor from Sudan, an increasingly hostile neighbor to Ethiopia. But it is a more complicated conundrum than an idealist agenda.
Sudan has its own game plan over border issues and the Nile dispute. It is also said to be offering military training and arms to Samry militants, the TPLF group that committed mass atrocities against Amharas and other non-Tigrayans in a place called MaiKardra and fled to Sudan across the border. Sudanese forces also occupied Ethiopian territories taking advantage of the chaos of war in Northern Ethiopia. While in Sudan, Power spent three days with a lengthy to-do list including talking to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to “mediate” and visiting refugees in Sudan where civilians and TPLF militants have been cohabiting.
Power is still looking for a smoking gun to justify her push for humanitarian military intervention to save the world from calamities in places like Ethiopia. The pressing question is why the head of an aid agency enjoys a free pass to play political skulduggery with a kind of Karen diplomacy, i.e. making ridiculously loud and selfish public demands by those feeling entitled beyond the scope of acceptable international norms. Such an approach undermines the credibility of USAID. Some Ethiopian-Americans felt that she was advancing a self-serving agenda at a turbulent time in Ethiopia.
During her press conference in Addis, she said she was concerned over the Prime Minister’s reference to the TPLF as cancer and a weed. According to her, this was hate speech that can instigate genocide. “Dehumanizing rhetoric of the kind only hardens tensions and can – and historically certainly often accompanies ethnically-motivated atrocities,” she said. This is preposterous as referring to a terrorist group as such is commonplace even amongst U.S. officials. For instance, addressing a gathering at the Center for a New American Security in November 2012, the then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said: “These gains are real, but it is important to point out that even with these gains, the threat from al Qaeda has not been eliminated. We have slowed the primary cancer, but we know that the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the global body.” The Karens and Kevins of this world may not understand. At least those of us who have been tortured by the TPLF for a mild criticism know how cancerous and dangerous a terrorist organization it is. The pain is always raw for survivors of torture.
The title of Power’s memoir says it all: “The Education of an Idealist.” She has long been an idealist clashing with the grim realities of this world. It is a noble thing to care about the world as an idealist or a realist. The problem with Power’s idealism is that it is based on the notion that the West’s aggressively partisan and selective military interventions can fix this broken world and end conflicts. Her idealism is based on the wrong premise that only “we can fix it” through selective outrages and military interventions. In an ideal world, yes, you can recreate the world in your own image with a stroke of a pen, a pep talk, or, if that fails, by dropping bombs and biscuits in war zones.
Wars, destruction, mass atrocities, hunger, human rights violations, all sorts of man-made disasters, and of course, the systemic racism the powerful and privileged don’t want to fix in earnest, are the integral parts of human history despite our best efforts or pretensions to stamp them out. The solution for each is as complicated as human depravity that also requires understanding what the reality is rather than what it ought to be to validate our worldviews and grand assumptions. One thing is crystal clear. The selective outrages of interventionist idealists like Power have never made the world a better place–whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Haiti, or Vietnam. The rap sheet only shows the destruction of biblical proportions.
A few days before the USAID Administrator’s visit to Ethiopia, there was a media blitz echoing her views. The headlines were bombastic. This is a common strategy in the West to push an agenda on Third World countries. Washington politicians and decision-makers, most of whom come from privilege and feel entitled from the get-go, are good at mobilizing and weaponizing the media for maximum impact. They always try to cause fear and trepidation amongst those they have zoomed in for a political arm-twisting exercise or elimination if the worst comes.
“US genocide expert to press Ethiopia on Tigray aid blockade,” screamed AP’s headline. Regardless of her expertise, she does not seem to understand the complexities and entanglements that originated from TPLF’s 27- year-long apartheid-like regime in Ethiopia. During those evil years, U.S. officials looked the other way when their brutal ally was committing mass atrocities, gross human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions at an industrial scale in broad daylight. Where was all the idealistic humanitarianism when TPLF brutalized and terrorized Ethiopians? Nowhere!
Had she made a little bit of digging in US government archives, just in case she didn’t, Power could have found out that TPLF is a terrible problem child of Africa. It is a ruthless violent group that was once listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group until it became the ruling party in 1991. And then, it won the trust of powerful friends like Susan Rice and Gayle Smith, among others, in the Clinton administration and managed to become Washington’s pampered adoptee through a “partnership in the global war on the war on terror.”
From Ireland to power
Power came to the U.S. as an immigrant with her Irish mother, a medical doctor, and younger brother when she was nine in 1979. She is now an immensely influential go-getter with an idealist agenda to change the world in her own image. She was an Obama confidant and went on to serve as US Ambassador to the UN from 2013 to 2017. She has the ears of lawmakers, President Joe Biden, and Secretary Anthony Blinken. USAID is not also an ordinary aid agency. As the head of USAID, she sits on the National Security Council, which is the President’s principal forum for national security and foreign policy decision-making with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. It is the President’s principal arm for coordinating policies across federal agencies, according to the White House.
With an annual budget of around $40 billion, it gives Power enormous leverage to advance her idealist humanitarianism. USAID’s aid packages to countries like Ethiopia don’t come for free. They come with strings attached. They will be withheld if the recipient fails to take all sorts of prescriptions and medications, even if they are lethal.
Power was a journalist long before she joined academia, at Harvard, and then through the Obama campaign, to Washington’s corridors of power. She was a bit of what Americans call an adrenaline-junkie war correspondent during the Balkan war with a burning desire to bring the perpetrators of atrocities to justice. That is a holy mission at face value. While she was interning for Mort Abramowitz, a veteran diplomat at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she forged a letter on a Foreign Policy magazine letterhead.
By her own admission, she stole a few letterheads from an editor’s office of Foreign Policy and wrote to the UN for a press credential. “I wrote this letter saying, ‘Please provide Samantha Power with all the credentials she needs.’” She claimed that it worked. That was how she found her way to the Balkans as a freelance war correspondent. In an interview with the New York Magazine, she said she had a more ulterior motive than pursuing her passion for journalism, i.e. influencing the U.S. government to intervene militarily. This can reveal her mindset: she seems to do whatever it takes and whatever it costs to get what she wants.
Africa’s problem from hell
Her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its detailed account of what happened during the Rwandan genocide and how the U.S. and its allies failed to prevent it. Despite her expertise and reporting skills, she seems to have misunderstood the complex crisis in Ethiopia. Notwithstanding the accolades, Power’s critics highlight her hawkish power plays to advance her agenda under the guise of humanitarianism. One of her vocal critics is the investigative journalist Ann Garrison. She believes that her egoistic view of the world is troubling and calls her “Africa’s problem from hell.”
Garrison wrote: “She wants you to call 1-800-GENOCIDE, so she can alert the president to send in the Marines or other US Special Forces. As head of USAID, she’ll be in a perfect position to wield foreign aid as a cudgel for beating foreign heads of state till they line up behind US empire, which she understands as a never-ending campaign to stop genocide and defend human rights.” She accuses her of instigating the disastrous US-led NATO bombings in Libya and Syria that added fuel into the fire rather than having the desired outcome. There is no question that Power cares as a humanitarian zealot who wants to make the world a better place. What is in dispute is not the intention but the way she wants to do it, including wielding American military might to stop humanitarian disasters and conflicts. Putting out fire with fire is always a dubious strategy. It has been tried and failed in many places including Ethiopia’s next-door neighbor Somalia where Bill Clinton’s 1992 Operation Restore Hope to “guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid.” But it further destabilized Somalia and ended in disaster and despair. The only good thing the operation produced is a Hollywood movie, Black Hawk Down.
The majority of Ethiopian-Americans undoubtedly share Secraty Anthony Blinken and Power’s concerns over the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray, which is now expanding into Afar and Amhara regions as TPLF’s terrorism and war of attritions go on unabated. The need for swift emergency aid delivery before the sun sets is too obvious to miss. It is an essential mission. The debate is about how to do it under these complex circumstances. Opening a so-called humanitarian corridor via Sudan regardless of Ethiopia’s protest, which seems to be an agenda Power is pushing with messianic zeal, will further complicate the conflict. Sudan and Egypt, which already have forged a joint front against Ethiopia as a result of disputes over the GERD, will also get an easy route to directly or indirectly insert themselves in the war. That means the conflict can easily grow into a much larger regional conflagration because of the position to appease TPLF terrorists.
It is indisputable that perpetrators of war crimes must be held accountable wherever they hide. In the case of Tigray, multiple parties are involved, including tens of thousands of convicted criminals the TPLF released en masse from prisons when it was forced to flee from cities and towns to the mountains. An independent investigation is a must before judgments are passed. People are tired of the distortions echoing TPLF’s sinister propaganda campaigns. At a time when their country has faced an existential threat since the TPLF launched a terrorist attack on the federal army on November 4, 2020, people want to hear the full story rather than handpicked snippets to advance a single narration. The tragic story begins with an audacious terrorist attack that was aimed at dismantling the army and usurping state power.
Whatever the case, you cannot blame the entire government of Ethiopia for what happened at a time of a brutal war that posed an existential threat to the nation. In fact, the TPLF leadership must be held primarily accountable for the unfolding humanitarian crises. It was the TPLF that started it all by slaughtering members of the army at nightfall and raiding military barracks and camps without any provocations. They called it a lightning strike which was aimed at dismantling the army and ultimately marching into the capital with little resistance. The ultimate objective was to reimpose their brutally repressive regime on the people of Ethiopia once again as if the 27-year long brutal regime was not enough.
Imagine the State Government of Texas attacking and overrunning Federal army bases killing thousands and detaining tens of thousands while in their pajamas. Would Biden send a congratulatory message to the attackers and sit down to negotiate with them for the sake of peace without the need to disarm the attackers? Not so easily. Compared to what happened in Ethiopia on November 4, 2020, the January 6 storming of the United States Capitol that sent shockwaves across the United States was a small-scale insurrection.
The U.S. was widely perceived as a great ally to Ethiopia. Now Ethiopians feel betrayed at a time when their country is in a deep crisis. The Biden administration’s call for the withdrawal of Amhara forces from “Western Tigray” is also perceived as insensitive. Because TPLF had total control of the narration and demonization of the people of Amhara, they have been misrepresented even by foreigners. The so-called Western Tigray, which was part of Begemidir, was forcefully annexed by the TPLF. For almost three decades, they committed ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities against Amhara habitants of Welkait and Humera. This is a sensitive issue, an open wound that must be left for Ethiopians to address internally.
The idealist warmonger
Power’s power play will only make countries like Ethiopia more destabilized as the TPLF terrorists will get more emboldened, audacious, and aggressive when they feel that their powerful allies are having their backs. In a recent interview with Garrison, International Law Professor Boyle calls Power a “rabid warmonger” who played a role in the destruction of Libya and Syria. He warned that it is going to be a dangerous situation in Ethiopia if they push for what they call “humanitarian military interventions.” He argues that the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a euphemism for humanitarian military intervention, in Ethiopia would be illegal and catastrophic.
The aggressive interventionist approach that Power & Co. promotes with passion is another way of pouring fuel into the fire. History lends enough lessons from places like Libya, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam. Fragile states cannot withstand the weight of superpower intervention. The best way to learn from history is to humbly and realistically digest the failures of the past and recognize the fact that national interest is best served when the interests of other nations are not detrimentally harmed up to the point of irreparable destruction under America’s leadership.
Sovereignty is not something that Ethiopians take lightly. Throughout their long history, they have made huge sacrifices to protect their sovereignty and independence. Ethiopia has a unique history and value system. The United States should rather treat its key ally that it used to call “a linchpin of stability and a strategic ally in the Horn of Africa,” fairly, equitably, and justly.
In the end, peace must come when the madness stops. But as the Roman historian Tacitus is quoted as saying: “A bad peace is even worse than war.” Peace must come in a way that will not jeopardize the very existence of a nation like Ethiopia which has paid huge sacrifices defending itself from all sorts of aggressions.
When the first U.S. American Ambassador to Ethiopia, Rober P. Skinner arrived in Addis Ababa in December 1903, he admiringly recognized Ethiopia’s greatness, pride, independence, and sovereignty at a time when most of the world was suffering under the tyranny of European colonialism.
Responsible global leadership
Throwing Ethiopia and its people, who are the victims of the war and terrorism unleashed by the TPLF, under the bus in times of great need will only be a regrettable episode in the century-old Ethio-US relations. It is good to remember that so many Ethiopian soldiers died in Somalia fighting the Al Shabaab terrorists on behalf of the U.S. That is why it makes sense that so many Ethiopian-American influencers and scholars are calling for a more measured and sober approach than the superpower military intervention.
It is good to see that the United States, under the leadership of President Biden, has started stepping up to return to the vacant position of global leadership that it had abandoned under Trump. And yet, America must lead with greater responsibility. In the words of Emperor Haile Selassie: “Leadership does not mean domination. The world is always well supplied with people who wish to rule and dominate others. The true leader is a different sort; he seeks effective activity which has a truly beneficent purpose. He inspires others to follow in his wake, and holding aloft the torch of wisdom, leads the way for society to realize its genuinely great aspirations.”
Ethiopian-American journalist Abebe Gellaw is an award-winning investigative journalist and press freedom advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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