U. S. policy in the Horn of Africa during the 1970’s was marked by the constraints posed by the international environment. The “twin pillar” policy formulated by the Nixon administration, and later by the Ford administration, was continued by the Carter administration.1 However, Carter’s major policy shift in 1979–1980 was not because of Soviet support for Ethiopia or the Somali abrogation of the treaty with the Soviets. The U.S. tended to misunderstand indigenous political changes in the Middle East and particularly in Iran .2 In addition, human rights as an attempt to devise an alternative strategy for rallying domestic support and to cope with international complexity ultimately proved to be a failure.
The diagnosis of whether the Cold War was driven by material interests or by an ideological contest is not a simple question. This issue becomes more complicated if we link it to the question of the Cold War as a security dilemma, with each of the superpowers driven by fear and the hope of gain. Nevertheless, the core of this dilemma lies in McGeorge Bundy’s claim about the War in Vietnam: “grey is color of the truth,”meaning that is not a black or white question.3
As far as the Horn of Africa is concerned, its strategic location thrust it into the international arena as a potential crisis zone. The location of the Horn at the southern end of the Red Sea, near the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb and across the Arabian Peninsula, is a prime location to project power and to provide military support in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.4 The Horn links the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia with the West through the Suez Canal and the Cape of Good Hope. The proximity of the Horn of Africa to the Middle East led United States foreign policymakers to view it in a broader regional context. An American presence in the area was necessary to maintain the economic security of the West, stabilize pro-Western governments, prevent a potential blockade of the oil lanes by the Soviets, and keep the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean open for Israel and Israeli bound shipping.
This essay attempts to trace the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the region since 1974. Significantly, after 1973, The Arab states as options became available to Washington, in an area where heretofore only Ethiopia and Israel were American allies. As we shall see, the “twin pillar” policy formulated by the Nixon administration, and later by the Ford administration, was continued in its basic purposes by the Carter administration.5
Initially, the Carter administration’s policy towards Ethiopia and Somalia reflected the constraints in the international environment, the growth of Soviet power, the weakness of the dollar, and the rise of the oil-producing Arab states. 6 This policy, which sought to deemphasize East–West confrontation and reduce U.S. commitments in the periphery, was marked by a shift towards embracing human rights issues. However, the orientation and the major shift of Carter’s policy in 1979–1980 was not caused by Soviet support for Ethiopia or by Somali abrogation of the treaty with the Soviets. Indeed, domestic pressures, followed by the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the partial failure to adopt a concrete foreign policy stemming from structural bureaucratic conflicts, shifted Carter toward policies reminiscent of the Cold War. We argue that despite the fact that the militarization of the “arc of crisis” helped the military–industrial complex to revive after a crisis bought on by the end of Vietnam War, détente, and the process of military innovation itself,7 the intentions of the U.S. were driven by domestic structural factors.
The U.S. tended to misunderstand indigenous political changes in the Middle East and particularly in Iran .8 In addition, human rights proved a failed attempt not only to devise an alternative strategy for rallying domestic support but also to cope with international complexity and bureaucratic efforts. Thus, the arms for base accord with Somalia in 1980 and the Rapid Deployment Force were results of transforming Iran’s regime change into an East–West confrontation.
Nixon Administration Policy toward Ethiopia
The Nixon doctrine was designed to project a low profile overseas and to limit U.S. military commitments by promoting self-help.10 While détente was based on the simplistic assumption that Third World revolutions were inspired and financed by the international agents of communism, Nixon and Kissinger concluded that the solution was the self-containment of the Soviet Union by drawing it into Western markets, finance, and credit.11 A direct effect of this policy was that the United States should avoid direct involvement in peripheral areas and should furnish sufficient amounts of weapons to key allied countries of the Third World.
Nevertheless, the main ally of the United States in the Horn of Africa region, Ethiopia and its Emperor Haile Selassie, did not thoroughly understand American global intentions. Since 1953, when the two countries signed a 25-year defense agreement, Ethiopia had been considered the key country in the region. Furthermore, within terms of this agreement, Ethiopia, in return for the training and economic aid that the United States provided to the Ethiopian army, allowed the United States to use a military communications base in Asmara. The Department of State used the base for the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa’s message traffic, while the United States’ world strategic communications network used the base as a relay station as well.
However, since the early 1970s, American policy regarding Ethiopia’s strategic importance began to shift, not only because of the Nixon Doctrine but also due to the improvement in satellite communications technology and the United States decision to construct a new base on the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia. Despite the fact that the official U.S. position was one based on technical rather than political reasons, which led to the scaling down of Kagnew,12 Diego Garcia had three important advantages: first, it had no indigenous population, which made the base less vulnerable to internal threat; second, it could fuel and harbor ships; and third, it was far from other countries and therefore not easily prone to attack by a neighbour.
Moreover, Ethiopia had failed to undertake some basic reforms suggested by the U.S. Embassy under the rubric “stability with progress.”13 These reforms included legal modernization, greater rights for Eritrea, devolution of power from the center to the periphery, and implementation of agrarian reform. In addition, the famine crisis of 1972–1973, resulting in the starvation of some 200,000 people and the Eritrean army struggle, had begun to cut into the Ethiopian economy. In fact, there were evident signs of a looming social explosion in Ethiopia and the United States gradually began to distance itself from the Emperor.
Despite these factors, Emperor Selassie believed that his personal relations with President Nixon could satisfy his arms request made in Washington in May 1973 during his last visit.14 On the other hand, during this period, the U.S. Congress established a counterbalance to the executive branch’s military commitments in the Third World, which began with the Symington Committee hearings in 1970. Moreover, the lessened importance of Kagnew, combined with the internal situation in Ethiopia and the Emperor’s declining popularity with the Ethiopian people, resulted in a rebuff of Selassie’s arms request. On September 12, 1974, Emperor Selassie was deposed by the Armed Forces Coordinating Committee known as the Dergue, which soon established Provisional Administrative Military Council. United States policy towards Ethiopia was not marked by a vast shift. Apart from external factors, Henry Kissinger, supported by the African Bureau within the State Department, did not wish to risk American credibility.15
There were several additional reasons within the Dergue’s political character, which did not alter the American attitude: First, the early selection of General Aman Andom, who was believed to have a pro-Western orientation and who was of Eritrean nationality, could be helpful towards a settlement of the Eritrean struggle; second, the American Embassy in Addis Ababa suggested that the Dergue was another version of Afro-socialism that “would not go too far;” third, the Dergue was divided into factions, and the United States favored the Amhara–Tigrayan faction; fourth, any nationalization programme would cause the cessation of international assistance and the Ethiopian economy was heavily dependent on foreign assistance; and fifth, the regime lacked essential financial and human resources that would assist in the rise of socialism.16
However, American analysts misidentified the internal dynamics within the Dergue and in the summer of 1976, Major Sisay of the moderate faction was arrested and executed. The new dominant faction, lead by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, favored a pro-Soviet policy, repression of any civilian opposition, and escalation of the war in Eritrea to ensure Ethiopian territorial integrity.17 However, American misinterpretation was clear on every level of the Ethiopian revolution, and, in large part, the U.S. failed to understand the internal dynamics of indigenous political change. This was illustrated by the fact that William Shaufele Jr., Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, believed that Ethiopia “could win” through increased military help.18
Foreign policy in the Middle East–Horn of Africa
Israel’s interest in Ethiopia, like that of the United States, revolved around Eritrea.20 The Israelis feared that the emergence of an independent pro-Arab Eritrean state would threaten their strategic interests in the Red Sea. Despite the regime change in Ethiopia, Israel continued to provide military assistance. Specifically within the complex regional framework, the United States tried to establish a policy of continuing arms supplies to Ethiopia, but in a manner that would not deteriorate its relationships with the moderate Arabs.21 These calculations, however, evoked and promoted disputes and clashes within the American foreign policy establishment, mainly during the Ford Administration.
In particular there were two sorts of debates regarding policy towards Ethiopia: First, the delivery of F-5 jets to the Ethiopian government in 1975 and Dergue’s arms requests on the one hand and the escalating Eritrean war and the consequent “secret” war between the Arabs and Israel on the other. We should note though that, from 1975 until 1977, Henry Kissinger held both the posts of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Nevertheless, the disputes within the Department of State appeared to be among the regional bureaus and specifically between the African Bureau and the Bureau for Near East and South East Asia. Indeed, historically, each Bureau within the Department of State tends to shape its own distinctive foreign policy, tries to gain priority for its own geographic area, and resists any kind of limit on its essential functions.22
In this instance, U.S. policy principally was based on the State Department’s African Bureau, which desired to maintain American political credibility in the region and on Henry Kissinger’s support of U.S. global credibility.23 In fact, there seemed to be a consensus among State’s globalists, the African bureau along with Israeli country experts which rested on the following premises: First, that Arab support for Eritrea was not so great; second, if the U.S. cut off aid, Eritrea would be independent and aligned with Arab countries, which would give the Arab countries control over both sides of Bab al-Mandeb; third, if Eritrea became independent with American permission, this would have a negative effect on Africa which has a vested interest in borders that are not subject to change; fourth, the U.S. was the only arms supplier in Ethiopia for years and should continue in the wake of Soviet assistance in Somalia and the needs of global credibility of the U.S.24 In addition, African analysts also held the view that Arab states exaggerated the Israeli threat to justify their intervention.
On the other hand, Arabists in the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, in the wake of the Dergue’s arms request in February 1975, held the view that the Israeli security argument was flawed. Their main arguments were that if Arab states wanted to attack Israeli ships, they could do so anyway since they controlled the whole Red Sea and Egypt had successfully blockaded the Bab al-Mandeb during the 1973 war. Second, the legitimacy of Dergue support, based on the Soviet support in Somalia, was doubtful because the political character of the Dergue with its hard-line leadership was alien to the U.S.25
It was obvious that the American administration was involved in a highly perplexing and complex situation, and, in combination with domestic political constraints, made any maneuvering extremely serious. Therefore, U.S. policies focused on not antagonizing the Arab states and on maintaining ties with Ethiopia, simultaneously.
Foreign policy and human rights
Specifically, regarding its policy towards Africa, the Carter administration sought to deemphasize the East–West confrontation in order that developing countries should be removed from this context. Therefore, regional conflicts in Africa should not be allowed to become proxy conflicts of the Cold War, but ought to be based on the belief of “African solutions to African problems.”26 More importantly, the Carter administration believed that human rights should play a crucial role in determining foreign policy toward the Third World. Fortunately, the Congress had started with the Jackson–Vanik amendment in 1974 to show interest in human rights, and during Carter’s presidency it appeared keen on addressing human rights violations.27 It is important to note, however, that human rights were linked to American self-interest with ethics combined with expediency and there were domestic issues included in the human rights policy.28
By the beginning of the Carter Administration, the faction of the Dergue, led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, had won the internal struggle within the Dergue following a bloody shootout in February 1977. This new dominant faction supported the view that to ensure Ethiopian integrity and their own political survival, the Dergue should find an ideologically compatible arms patron, and this was the Soviet Union. Personally, Mengistu thought that the human rights rhetoric of the United States, combined with the perception that the American administration would eventually undermine the Dergue regime in Addis Ababa, contributed to his establishment of a military relationship with the U.S.S.R.
At this time, the pursuit of the human rights agenda to terminate military aid to Ethiopia seemed to Addis Ababa, as only a pretext rather than the true basis for U.S. policy. In truth though, the factors attributed to the American decision was the decline of the Kagnew base’s strategic importance, the struggle in Eritrea that threatened American personnel in Asmara, the lack of great economic interests in Ethiopia, and finally, Israel’s proven naval and military capability to protect its interests.
During the spring of 1977, the Carter administration discussed the possibility of forging closer ties with Somalia. One potential reason for this may be the Arab states’ policy toward Somalia, particularly by Saudi Arabia. The main Saudi goals at this time were to stabilize Nimeiri in Sudan and to eliminate pro-Russian influence in the Red Sea, fearing a Soviet expansion.29 Saudi Arabia promised extensive military and economic aid to Somalia to deter the Soviets. In fact, the U.S. was reluctant to foster relations with Somalia largely due to the Soviet presence in the country. The U.S. believed Somalia was not under threat, despite Soviet assistance to Ethiopia. The U.S. also feared increased that military supplies could lead to greater American involvement should border tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia erupt in a war. Finally, members of the National Security Council, including Paul Henze believed that, in the long term, the United States should not break away from Ethiopia.30
In late July 1977, Somali troops began to invade the Ogaden region and in early August, the border clashes between Somali and Ethiopian troops erupted into a full-scale war. During the same period, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stated that the United States considered supplying military assistance to Somalia. Consequently, the Somali President, Siad Barre, interpreted the intention of the United States to supply Somalia with defensive arms as a “forthcoming attitude.”31 Besides that, the Somali invasion of Ogaden rested on the collapse of Ethiopian relations with the United States, Ethiopian internal conflict with Eritrea, the support of Arab states, the fact that Moscow would remain neutral, and Siad Barre’s personal opportunism.
On the other hand, President Carter refused to support Somalia and instead he pushed for a peaceful resolution through the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Moreover, Carter insisted on his long-term policy towards Africa, which included “African solutions for African problems.” However, the Carter administration’s policies underestimated the diplomatic pressure on Somalia in order to preempt Soviet and Cuban involvement, the willingness of the international community to resolve the conflict, and the OAU’s mediating efforts. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union decided to support Ethiopia largely due to the fact that Addis Ababa seemed more committed to Marxist–Leninist ideology than did the Somalis who were more interested in Somali irredentism and nationalism, Ethiopia’s strategic position, and its dependence upon Moscow, after their break up with the U.S.
The war in the Ogaden produced a larger clash within the American bureaucracy, which was not simply a difference of opinion between the National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance. Brzezinski presented Soviet involvement in the Horn as a paradigm case of Soviet assertiveness. In his view, the war in the Ogaden was evidence of a Soviet grand design and Moscow’s opportunism in the Third World.32 Moreover, Soviet advances in the area represented a setback in Washington’s attempt to establish better relations with the Soviet Union. Thus, Brzezinski proposed that the United States should first deploy a major U.S. carrier task force in the region, support Somalia, and funnel arms to the Eritrean nationalists to damage the Soviet Union both politically and militarily.33 In addition, Brzezinski argued that Soviet behavior in the Horn was a preposterous notion and should be linked to SALT negotiations and other arms control agreements.
The Department of State was supportive of negotiations, sensitive to African nationalism, and was of the opinion that this conflict should not be seen as an East–West confrontation. Therefore, State “justified” Soviet intervention in the defense of Ethiopian integrity.34 Cyrus Vance argued that the U.S. should, in the long term, improve relations with Ethiopia and opposed Brzezinski’s suggestion of linking the war in Ogaden with SALT and deploying a task force. In his views, any task force deployment would steer the conflict. Thus, Washington’s decision to formulate the five-point strategy regarding the Ogaden was also designed toward bringing cohesion to the U.S. foreign policy.35 After the Ogaden war, Vance was inclined toward a more Cold War approach, supporting the view that the U.S. should supply arms to Somalia in order to promote a nonaligned country and prohibit the restoration of Soviet influence.
Apparently, the lack of cohesion and consensus regarding U.S. policy in the Horn was not just a clash between Brzezinski and Vance, the National Security Council and The State Department, or between State’s regional bureaus. This can be seen by the fact that both Brzezinski and Vance agreed to Carter’s human rights agenda, supported Ethiopian integrity with regard to the Eritrean case, and agreed that the U.S. should not be rushed into a direct military relationship with Somalia before sending a military survey team.36
Carter’s strategy during the Ogaden crisis shows that there was no major shift from the administration’s declared foreign policy priorities, mainly the human rights agenda. In the case of the Horn of Africa, none of the domestic, economic, and security elements tied to human rights was under real threat.
Policy Reorientation under Carter
Meanwhile, the abdication of the Shah in Iran and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan prompted the reorientation of Carter’s foreign policy, which until then continued to rely on the “twin-pillar” concept for the Middle East region founded upon Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranian military was considered America’s main surrogate in the Persian Gulf and the transformation of Iran into a radical Islamic regime constituted a major threat to American interests in the Middle East. Apart from that, there were clear divisions within the government regarding the policy toward Iran. The Department of State and the regional bureau favored accommodation with the regime and attempted to foster good relations.38 On the other hand, Brzezinski and the NSC, including other top officials in the White House, firmly supported the Shah. It was clear that Carter’s foreign policy was driven by contradictory sets of international, domestic, and bureaucratic pressures.
In order to have a concrete response in this context of interrelated factors, the Carter Administration rearticulated its foreign policy declaring that “any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an attack in the vital interests of the U. S., and such an assault will be resisted by any means necessary.” Furthermore, the uncertainty associated with radical change, which the U. S. believed that it could pose a threat to conservative and moderate neighbours and the fear that the Soviet Union might take advantage over Iran, led American decision-makers to focus on Soviet Union. In addition, U.S. policy planners maintained that a coherent policy for Southwest Asia crystallized only with increasing concern about the Soviet threat and the predominant conceptual framework of East versus West.39 Anticommunism evoked the image of a direct challenge to United States interests and served as justification for broader and more concrete policies of intervention and containment. Another contributing factor was the calculation made by the Congressional Budget Office, that if the Soviets controlled the Persian Gulf and Saudi oil was disrupted for only one year, this would cost the American economy $272 billion in export earnings and result in 20 percent inflation.40
To pursue its tougher approach on foreign policy, the Carter administration decided to seek military bases in Kenya, Oman, and Somalia, increase the U. S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and create a Rapid Development Joint Task Force. However, analysts in the Congress did not share Washington’s view and maintained that there was no immediate need for military bases in Africa. In addition, the African Bureau at State continued to pursue a policy of “open lines” with Addis Ababa. Indeed, their main assessment was that the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandeb could be sealed off easily in a crisis, while American vital interests were not seriously impaired during 1967 and 1975, when the Canal was closed. Furthermore, the United States had nurtured strategic partnerships with Sudan and Kenya that made the Somali option unnecessary. In particular, the U. S. provided Kenya and Sudan economic and military assistance, Mombassa was an attractive base for the U. S. Navy, while Khartoum had aligned itself closer with the Saudis and the Egyptians.
Despite the criticism towards establishing a military relationship with Somalia, officials within the administration expounded the view that the United States could rely entirely on Saudi bases in a crisis that would not threaten directly Saudi interests. Moreover, the United States could not use the Israeli option so as not to antagonize the Arab states directly. Although, Diego Garcia could supply the U.S. Navy during a crisis, it was too distant and no sealift operations could take place within five to six days. Advocates of the U.S.–Somalia agreement argued that Somalia was strategically flexible, which could help the U.S. defend sea lines more easily.41
The doctrinal policy split under Carter affected his administration’s personnel. Andrew Young, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations resigned, while Henry Richardson, the NSC Chief for Africa, Paul Warnike, Head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Leslie Gelb, Assistant Secretary of State, were all replaced by globalist thinkers and Cold War policy advocates. The reorientation of Carter’s policy led also to a change towards Ethiopia. The United States seemed ready to take the risk of possibly alienating Ethiopia by embracing Somalia. In fact, the Carter Administration, while there were clear indications of human rights abuses in Somalia, criticized only the Ethiopian government for its human rights record. However, the most contending issue that showed Carter’s willingness to establish a military relationship with Somalia was the Somali involvement in the Ogaden. Fears that American military assistance in Somalia could turn the Ogaden conflict into a full-fledged war were outweighed by the new orientation of the Carter administration. Actually, statements by American officials showed that their attitude towards the Western Somali Liberation Front had changed, largely due to broader strategic considerations.
Finally, after months of negotiations with the Somali government, an agreement was reached and included Somali sovereignty rights over all facilities and real property, and compensation by the U.S. for all services rendered by Somalia; the U.S. would assist Somalia on military exercises and would provide $40 million in security over a two-year period. Indeed, the agreement between Somalia and the United States in the wake of the radical regime change in Iran highlighted Carter’s reorientation of foreign policy on several issues, human rights abuses, Somali involvement in the Ogaden, and relations with Ethiopia.
Indeed, the human rights policy proved to be a failed attempt to devise an alternative strategy for rallying domestic support. By the end of the Ogaden War the Republicans openly criticized the government for its failures. To have a concrete response to domestic criticism as well as the bureaucratic resistance and clashes between lower level and top level officials, the Carter administration decided to abandon the human rights agenda to pursue a more doctrinal policy. It was clear that human rights that evolved around the core of international liberalism did not have the ideological power of anti-communism. On the other hand, the U. S. tended to misunderstand indigenous political change and often mistook nationalism and neutralism for communism.