Whitewashing Susan Rice’s culpable diplomatic blunders

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Whitewashing Susan Rice’s culpable diplomatic blunders

Byy Kibreab Tesfay

22 July 2020 – Writing for a local US Newspaper (Orange Country Register), Professor Tom Campell crows on Susan Rice’s (pictured with the late TPLF leader) presumed “talents and virtues that are disappointingly rare in US diplomacy today”.

The author proceeds to shower gratuitous plaudits on Rice for her laudable “initiative and role” to end the “Eritrea-Ethiopia border war.

Granted, this is election year in the US which translates into characteristic hyperbole and media hype by campaign handlers of potential candidates to high office. But even with these extenuating circumstances and the Professor’s palpable zeal to bolster Rice’s bid for the post of VP in the Biden Presidential ticket, the narrative is patently false and utterly irresponsible.

First off, Susan Rice was not “driven” by diplomatic foresight, wisdom and courage or by empathy for the peoples of the Horn of Africa, to “nudge the US Government” to launch a peace initiative to prevent a looming Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict. Rice first came into the scene during the early days of the border war in May 1998 as an appointed envoy.

Indeed, the US and Rwanda became involved in the facilitation process on the initiative and express request of Eritrea.

Eritrea’s persistent efforts to contain TPLF’s strident territorial ambitions and illicit acts of surreptitious encroachment on sovereign Eritrean lands through bilateral frameworks were to no avail. Hand-written amicable letters that President Isaias sent to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister when TPLF troops set camp in the Eritrean small town of Adi Murug in August 1997; various meetings of the Bilateral Boundary Committee that was subsequently established on Eritrea’s insistence did not bear any fruit. The TPLF went further to declare war against Eritrea in the first weeks of May 1998 using a minor skirmish that it provoked in the Badme area as a pretext. In the circumstances, Eritrea solicited the facilitation of two friendly countries – the US & Rwanda – to prevent the outbreak of a potential and costly war between the two neighbours.

But what Rice and her superiors who continued to be involved in the facilitation process for the next two years, had in mind was a complex geopolitical game that had nothing to do with sincere efforts of conflict resolution. This is amply illustrated by the following sequence of events:

1. When Eritrea raised legitimate queries on a US heavy-handed, hastily worked out and flawed initial proposal, Susan Rice, who was then US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, broke diplomatic precedence to directly address the OAU Summit in Ougadigou to lobby the OAU to adopt a resolution against Eritrea. On that same day, apparently with the tacit endorsement of Rice and company, the TPLF regime launched an air strike on Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, thus escalating minor border skirmishes into a major war. Nonetheless, US facilitation process, buttressed by the OAU and the EU, continued after tacit admission of her missteps by her superiors.

2. In July the same year, President Clinton brokered an Agreement on the Moratorium on Air Strikes between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea’s pronounced preference was for a comprehensive secession of hostilities. But the Clinton Administration insisted on an initial, partial arrangement for the interim period, arguing that the TPLF regime was not prepared to contemplate a comprehensive truce at that point in time. The TPLF regime abused this fragile window of truce to purchase SU-27 jet fighters and launched a new, large-scale, offensive using its new aircraft against Eritrea eight months later, on 6 February 1999. This flagrant breach of US-brokered Moratorium on Air Strikes that plunged the two countries into another, more ferocious, round of war did not elicit the requisite action, or even condemnation, by US Administration and Rice; its chief facilitator at the time.

3. This betrayal was played out again in May 2000. This time round, the Facilitation Team included Anthony Lake, the US Director of National Security (Rice was on his team), Italian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Serri as the EU envoy, and Algerian Justice Minister, Ahmed Yahiya, representing the OAU. The Facilitation Team submitted the “Technical Arrangements” proposal to both parties as a “leave it or take it” package in September 1999. Both parties accepted the document and pledged to be bound by its provisions. Soon after, Eritrea learned that the TPLF regime had accepted the Agreement as a time-buying ploy to launch another large-scale offensive. This information was conveyed to the Facilitators who reassured Eritrea that the “TPLF regime would face severe consequences should this turn out to be the case”. As predicted, the TPLF regime labeled the peace process in “terminal phase” and launched its third offensive on 12 May 2000 in blatant violation of the “Technical Arrangements”. The Facilitators reneged on their commitments again and allowed Ethiopia to indulge in yet another reckless offensive with impunity.

4. Rice and her superiors were thus partially culpable for pouring oil to the fire to stoke a major war between the two countries. Furthermore, Susan Rice was responsible for imposing UNSC sanctions against Eritrea in 2009 and 2011 respectively when she served as US Ambassador to the UN during the Obama Administration.

These are the indelible facts.

As indicated above, Susan Rice was not acting alone. In most instances, she was not the principal player; accountable as she was to Madeline Albright in the first stint and working directly under the supervision of Anthony Lake in the subsequent episodes. Furthermore, the Bush Administration followed suit when the TPLF regime rejected the EEBC “final and binding” Arbitral Award in contravention of the Algiers Agreement that the Facilitators had brokered with explicit provisions of punitive action by the UNSC against the guilty party under Article VII of the UN Charter.

In this perspective, the blame for the debacle cannot be pinned down to diplomatic misdemeanor, temperament or other fault lines of Susan Rice alone. The compelling evidence points to deliberate, bi-partisan, US policy that stemmed from its geopolitical calculus and perceived interests in those crucial years. Still, these considerations cannot absolve Susan Rice from personal and collective culpability.