Early Warning Foiled Again By Unexpected African War

The strange little war between Eritrea and Ethiopia casts some strange big shadows. It makes no sense.

Two dirt-poor countries are shooting it out for bits of rocky ground and dusty villages along a badly marked border.

One observer called it "two bald men fighting over a comb."

It came without warning. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, visiting Asmara, capital of Eritrea, was not told that hostilities had begun three days earlier. The news did not break for a week and then both sides reported it more in sorrow than in anger, appropriately enough.

Eritrea and Ethiopia were friends. The leaders had been allies in overthrowing a brutal Ethiopian military dictatorship. In return, the new government in Addis Ababa gave the Eritreans the independence they had been fighting for since the days of Emperor Haile Selassie.

What touched off the present conflict? No one seems to know.

Eritrea seems to have made the first move. Its young president, Isaias Afewerki, cagily asserts his country's dignity. Neighboring Djibouti says he seized a frontier post and he disputes the Lesser Hanish Islands in the Red Sea with Yemen. Eritrea is a constant target of subversion from Sudan.

As for Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also feels political pressures. A member of the Tigrean ethnic minority, he is accused by the large Amhara people and others of having given up too much.

With independence, Eritrea received both of Ethiopia's seaports; and there are signs that the Ethiopians may expand the current fracas to retake one of them, Assab on the Red Sea.

Any such expansion of the war would be a bitter blow to the United States, which has worked hard to make the two countries the cornerstone of peace, stability, even democracy, in the Horn of Africa.

Early warning might have helped but, desirable though it is as an instrument of peace in this disorderly time, it is not necessarily enough.

There was plenty of warning that India and then Pakistan would let loose the nuclear genie. They now seem intent on turning these devices into weapons. And there is always the danger that ingrained paranoia and problems like Kashmir could set them off.

Warnings came in Rwanda and before Serbia started the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. They are loud now in Kosovo. A timely alert, followed by diplomacy and persuasion might have done the job.

It would help if states accepted an ethic of self-restraint. The outlines of it exist in the United Nations Charter and in the web of humanitarian law that has been spun in the last 50 years. In sum, states must recognize that political, economic, and social problems cannot be solved by force.

That recognition is not yet general. Until it is, the world community must seek effective deterrence, a credible combination of cookie and whip, to avert disaster. Should that not suffice, there remains the option of physical intervention, which the UN Security Council can authorize or a posse improvise all the way to nation-building as is now in progress in Bosnia.

The alternative would be to sit back and let the conflict burn itself out - or spread.

The unexpected little war in northeast Africa is everywhere food for thought.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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