Ethiopian Regime Looks West for Helping Hand. Mengistu looks to US as Soviet largess wanes, but human rights abuses make aid seem unlikely. FOREIGN POLICY

ON the ropes militarily, economically, and diplomatically, the Marxist regime in Ethiopia is reaching out to the West. President Mengistu Haile Mariam's government ``is on the run like never before and seems to be on an irreversible downward slide,'' says Paul Henze, a specialist on the Horn of Africa at the Rand Corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.

But as Mr. Mengistu tries to rally support, there is debate in Washington over whether the US should be forthcoming toward a government that has one of the world's worst human rights records, and which is not yet repentant, say US officials, congressional aides and private specialists.

Ethiopia-watchers here agree the regime is weakened, though they disagree on the chances of it crumbling soon. Some, such as Michael Johns of the Heritage Foundation, think it could crack in the months ahead. Others say it still has ``plenty of capability to do harm,'' as one government analyst puts it.

All agree the Mengistu government has recently suffered stunning military defeats at the hands of Marxist rebel movements in Tigre and Eritrea Provinces. ``The Army isn't fighting and the people are tired of war,'' says a specialist recently returned from the region. ``They've suffered too much.''

Ethiopia's Soviet patrons are pushing the government toward economic and political reform, but are meeting resistance from a regime still touting a Stalinist approach. Moscow is also hinting that new military aid may not be as forthcoming after the current agreement runs out next year. But US specialists within and without the US government disagree on how far Moscow is willing to push its ally.

``The Soviets have tolerated and endorsed every excess'' by giving Mengistu more than $11 billion of military aid since 1977, Rand's Mr. Henze says. ``Now they recognize that they have reached a dead-end, and they are trying to pressure a very stubborn regime to make concessions.'' But there is no clear evidence of a reduced arms flow, nor any sign that Moscow willsever its deep ties with the regime, he says.

Ethiopia is seeking to diversify its military supply relationships through overtures to North Korea, Israel and others, according to US officials and congressional aides.

President Mengistu has also made a number of overtures to the US and other potential Western donors and investors. But US officials say the others, without the US, are reluctant to get too involved in what is probably the world's poorest country. So Mengistu has been forced to turn on the charm.

In February, the Ethiopian government asked the US to allow it to send an ambassador to its embassy here after nine years of lower-level representation. President Mengistu has also wined and dined recent US visitors with the message of wanting better relations. Former President Jimmy Carter was his most recent guest late last month.

The Bush administration has not yet decided how to respond and is in no hurry to do so, US officials say. ``The US is not particularly eager to normalize relations [because] we don't think this particular leopard can change his spots,'' a high ranking administration official says.

He and others say the Mengistu regime must stop ``brutalizing'' its people, end the forced movement of peasants, reform its Stalinist economic and agricultural policies, and show an interest in finding a negotiated end to the Tigre and Eritrea rebellions before US-Ethiopian relations can bloom. In the interim, they say, the US is quite happy to have frank talks with the Ethiopians about needed changes.

Animosity in Washington toward the Mengistu regime stretches from the Congressional Black Caucus to the conservative right because of its ``bloodthirsty'' practices and abysmal human rights record, says Pauline Baker, an Africa-watcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming reaction to Ethiopia's overtures is ``to let the regime twist in the wind and let Moscow pick up the bill,'' a congressional aide says.

A few observers suggest the US might have something to gain by limited responses to Ethiopian overtures - as long as Washington makes clear it is in no way endorsing practices under Mengistu.

US Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, who recently visited the region, supports an exchange of ambassadors. He sees this as a way of increasing US leverage, expanding its diplomatic presence, and enhancing its ability to help common Ethiopians. ``We're not endorsing a regime by exchanging ambassadors,'' he says. ``We have an ambassador in Moscow and we don't endorse that regime.''

Mr. Johns, at the right-of-center Heritage Foundation, argues for a complete rebuff of Mengistu's overtures. Mengistu is responsible for ``a state-sponsored holocaust which contributed to the death of over 1 million people,'' Johns says. ``He is in the same category as Cambodia's Pol Pot.... We don't want to send a message to the Ethiopian people that we are with this government by raising the level of diplomatic relations.''

The US aim should be to replace the Mengistu regime, Johns contends. ``This is doable now,'' he says. ``The man is on the edge.'' Johns advocates working with other nations to keep Ethiopia isolated, possibly covertly aiding some of the pro-Western opposition groups, pressing Moscow to stop its military aid, and beginning talks with rebel groups in Tigre and Eritrea.

An aide to US Rep. Toby Roth (R) of Wisconsin, who has been an active critic of Mengistu, says there is nothing to show that the regime has changed its ``evil ways.'' Even if it did, the aide says reforms could not atone for Mengistu's past crimes. Any move by the administration to upgrade relations ``would be fought tooth and nail'' by Democrats and Republicans, he says.

The administration, however, did not immediately rebuff the Ethiopians. Rather, it decided to see if there are serious changes in the wind, and if Ethiopia's new tone would bring some short-term benefits for the crisis in the Sudan. Ethiopia could be helpful in getting badly needed food supplies into war-torn southern Sudan, for example. It might also encourage peace in Sudan, since the rebels there receive Ethiopian aid and sanctuary.

(Ethiopia is already quietly allowing private relief groups to deliver food from its territory into southern Sudan. The government, however, does not publicly admit this, because it opposes a similar cross-border feeding operation from the Sudan into rebel-held Eritrea.)

``We're looking for opportunities to help solve the massive humanitarian problems in the region and to encourage peacemaking there,'' a US diplomat says. ``But we have no interest in bailing Mengistu out.''

Many in Washington favoring an upgrade in relations say it will make the most sense if it comes in the context of Ethiopian contributions to solving the widespread humanitarian and civil war problems in the Horn, says a key congressional aide.

``Yes, Mengistu's not trustworthy and he's nasty, but he's a key player in the region and he's in a corner,'' the aide says.

Henze contends that the current US approach is just right. ``We can well afford to bide our time. It would be unseemly to be seen as embracing a discredited regime.'' The US is the most admired country in Ethiopia, he says.

``It's almost embarrassing how warmly Ethiopians on the street greet Americans.'' Until the mid-1970s, the US was Ethiopia's main superpower ally. The Voice of America is reportedly the most listened-to source of news in the country.

The US is in a position of strength to regain influence in Ethiopia over the medium and long term, Henze and US officials say. In addition to the reservoir of popular goodwill, they say the West is the one source of aid and investment that Ethiopia desperately needs.

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