Ethiopian illusions

FOR the United States, the true problem of Ethiopia is much deeper than the current famine. The history of our relations with that country has been fraught with illusions, frustrations, and reverses. In many ways, it has been a microcosm of problems that have bedeviled us throughout the developing world. The Emperor, standing resolute against the Italians in 1936, caught the imagination of the US. Later, we embraced Ethiopia as an ally. Haile Selassie was one of the few leaders to send troops to fight with us under the United Nations banner in Korea. He permitted us to retain a US Army communications station in Asmara. We opened programs of economic and military assistance. We claimed Ethiopia as part of the ``free world.''

I can recall my first visit to Ethiopia in 1958. I found it hard to see this impoverished, Byzantine nation as part of the ``free world,'' yet was keenly aware of the value to us of Ethiopia's cooperation. Over the years we came to know more. Ethiopia was not really a country, but an empire of different peoples held together by the wiles and power of the Emperor. Many US officials spoke to him of succession (I was one). He regarded any chosen successor -- including his son -- as a potential rival.

Young, educated Ethiopians (often US-educated) resented what they saw as our support for the Emperor. Some spoke of revolution -- but many were the first to perish or flee in the one that came.

Somalia became independent in 1960 and laid claim to the Ogaden region, virtually one-third of Ethiopia. We became embroiled in the irreconcilable claims of these countries. Somali efforts to invade the Ogaden after the revolution was the reason given for the entry of Cuban troops into Ethiopia.

With the coup against the Emperor in 1974, circumstances changed dramatically. Given the pro-Soviet cast of the new regime, the US halted military equipment orders. The communications station was closed; foreign companies, including American, were nationalized; and payments were halted on Export-Import Bank loans and military supply credits.

When diplomatic approaches to the new regime failed to resolve the issues of compensation for nationalization and the resumption of debt payments, three mandatory US legislative restrictions came into force. The Hickenlooper amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act prevents further aid without compensation to expropriated US companies. The Gonzalez amendment requires that the US vote against loans in multinational banks until claims are settled. The Brooke amendment bars aid until debts are paid.

Revolutionary regimes do not easily submit to such pressures. But even if these issues were settled, other problems would remain.

Our ``tilt'' toward Somalia and our facilities there would be a serious irritant. We cannot, except with a presidential waiver, provide assistance to a communist country or to countries with a deplorable human rights record. Ethiopia has not yet been declared in either category, but any effort to resume aid, even if the Ethiopians requested it, would inevitably raise these issues.

The Ethiopian regime has undoubtedly felt pressured by the spotlight on its problems to permit the entry of temporary outside relief, including the outpouring from the US. Obstacles to more prolonged and effective aid are, however, formidable. They include not only the legal and political inhibitions in the US, but the attitude of Ethiopia's leadership, Marxist-Leninist in orientation, bolstered by the Soviets and the Cubans, beleaguered by internal strife, and deeply suspicious of the US.

The stark pictures out of Ethiopia have spurred a swift and generous response in both official and private resources. As we give, however, we should be cautious about creating new illusions that our generosity will lead to a more sympathetic attitude in the regime toward us and a resolution of the several residual pre-revolutionary issues. The obstacles may, at this point, be just too great.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He was director of Northern African affairs with the State Department from 1962 to 1965 and assistant US secretary of state for Africa from 1969 to 1973.

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