The Biden Administration’s failure to communicate has left Ethiopian Americans to speculate as to why the policy is the way it is, and those speculations range anywhere from gross negligence to a neocolonial conspiracy to deliberately weaken any sense of African pride because of Ethiopia’s victory over colonialism. And the Democratic party is already under fire for its tendency to mute Black issues except in the run-up to elections.
The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States is large and well-established, and it offered a deep well of support to Joe Biden’s campaign for president. The million-strong Ethiopian diaspora has also proved a reliable source of mobilization and financial support for the Democrats across state and local contests. But to their grief and disappointment, the Biden Administration has made no effort to consult with the diaspora in crafting its policy towards Ethiopia — a divisive policy that has so far not only entirely failed in its stated goal of minimizing human suffering and ending the war, but has sparked widespread anti-American sentiment across the Horn, to the great benefit of China and Russia. The Biden Administration’s failure to communicate has left Ethiopian Americans to speculate as to why the policy is the way it is, and those speculations range anywhere from gross negligence to a neocolonial conspiracy to deliberately weaken any sense of African pride because of Ethiopia’s victory over colonialism. And the Democratic party is already under fire for its tendency to mute Black issues except in the run-up to elections.
The Administration claims that it is worried about the potential for genocide in the midst of a year-long insurgency by Ethiopia’s former dictatorial rulers, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Administration has cut some bilateral aid, threatened to slap sanctions and visa restrictions on individuals, and has tried to hold up multilateral funding to Ethiopia. Bewilderingly, though, by far the most potent tool that Biden has actually deployed to stop the war is denying Ethiopia trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) — an action that is irrational at best, and malicious at worst. The impact the AGOA suspension will have on the Ethiopian Government’s policy towards the war with the TPLF is indisputably zero, but it will certainly displace tens of thousands of low-income workers, the vast majority of whom are poor women with children. These displaced workers will only add to the humanitarian crisis afflicting the nation (and to Americans’ tax burden, since America remains the largest humanitarian aid provider to Ethiopia).
Why is Biden’s Ethiopia policy so bad? Because it is predicated on a fundamentally flawed reading of the existing balance of power in Ethiopia.
In his capacity as Biden’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Jeffery Feltman gave a speech at the United States Institute for Peace on November 4, in which he asserted that America’s primary objective is the maintenance of peace and security in the Horn of Africa region.The growing competition with Russia and China aside, that is a surely a legitimate goal. The means through which Feltman has pursued that objective, however, have been unsound.
Official communications that have come out of the Administration over the last year suggest that it is working on the basis of four operational assumptions: (1) the security situation in Ethiopia could degenerate further and thus crimes in violation of national and international law will continue to be committed in greater numbers; (2) the Ethiopian Government is either unable or unwilling to stop them, (3) the only solution is a peaceful settlement of the hostility between the Government and the TPLF; and (4) for such settlement to happen, the Biden Administration should be on the side of the weaker party that is the TPLF.
The fourth point is the most important. In spite of the massive military strength of the TPLF, the Biden Administration fears the potential for a genocide of the Tigrayan people in Ethiopia. Truthfully, it probably fears the reputational costs of inaction on even the rumors of genocide even more. Biden’s team has in consequence led the Western world with all its might in demonizing and weakening the Ethiopian Government in an effort to bring it to the negotiating table with a former authoritarian party that has been declared a terrorist organization by democratically elected government. (A government that even Ambassador Feltman confirmed in his November 4 lecture enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of the Ethiopian people.) Washington’s pursuit of this policy for over a year, despite the political and legal impossibility of the Government conducting negotiations with the TPLF, has only helped escalate the conflict to the point where a significant proportion of the population now lives under the armed occupation of the TPLF, exposed to an ever-expanding humanitarian crisis.
The injury, loss, and damage that the Tigray people have suffered is by now most evident. The TPLF reacted to its expulsion from power in 2018, and the subsequent abuses heaped on the Tigrayan population in the wake of TPLF’s launch of the war, in the most natural way that an injured person could react: by avenging the injury albeit at the risk of setting a vicious cycle of vengeance in motion. The Biden Administration has implicitly supported the TPLF’s attempts to get revenge. A policy that is meant to protect what was perceived to be a vulnerable minority group has now resulted in more injuries and losses to more people. And the end result is nothing but a net loss.
The Administration’s inexplicable and unrelenting support for TPLF has without a doubt emboldened the rebel group, which only needed a small nudge to reignite its belief of superiority and propel it to make extremely risky military bets on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans. Public statements by TPLF civilian and military leaders suggest that they are absolutely convinced that they can achieve their (cloudy) objectives through military means because, although they only constitute five percent of the population, their generals have superior knowledge and their people are more gallant than other Ethiopians.
It is not surprising that an armed group would craft polices around this type of rhetoric. What is surprising is that Western governments would make policies on the basis of such preposterous claims.
Ambassador Feltman took pains to emphasize in his abovementioned talk that he recognizes that this is not 1991, and that the circumstances leading to the TPLF’s celebrated underdog victory over the Communist Derg back then have fundamentally changed. But it is not clear that anyone within the Administration has actually taken that statement to heart. Based on the rush of foreign embassies to pull their staff out of Addis Ababa, it appears that many of them do indeed believe that the TPLF has the strength to launch an assault on the capital. They are wrong.
In 1991, the TPLF was a well-organized, doctrinally-equipped, disciplined, and ambitious military and political force led by an exceptionally astute leader, Meles Zenawi. It also enjoyed support from a more mature and better-resourced independence movement, the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF), which at the time shared a commonality of interest in overthrowing a highly-despised communist military dictator. That mix of historic circumstances — or anything remotely resembling them — cannot be recreated in present day Ethiopia.
TPLF has aged ungracefully. Since Meles’s passing, it has exercised poor judgment at just about every critical juncture, directly contributing to the extreme conditions that the Tigray people and the whole nation now find themselves in. The current TPLF is a frustrated ethno-nationalist party that is disliked across the board not only because of the arrogance that it has demonstrated since it lost federal power in 2018, but also as a result of its three decades of infinitely rigged and vicious rule. Because it represents a small minority, it must always sabotage democracy in the sense of one-person-one-vote. It succeeded for three decades. But now Ethiopians have had enough of the nonsense.
No wonder then that most Ethiopians and Ethio-Americans are puzzled by the Biden Administration’s habit of deferring to the TPLF and its version of events (to the extent that some officials will even assert, entirely falsely, that it was the Ethiopian government that started the war).
Many Ethiopians — understandably — attribute this dishonesty and bias to a secret desire by the Biden Administration to resuscitate the TPLF. But the more plausible explanation is simply that American officials are just misapprehending the nature, legitimacy and achievability of TPLF’s objectives.
TPLF’s publicly stated objectives do appear legitimate: to break the siege, allow the flow and distribution of humanitarian aid, and exercise their people’s inherent and constitutional right to self-determination. TPLF’s stated means of achieving these objectives, however, is fatally flawed: it depends on the use of force. In turn, there are two reasons why the TPLF leadership (and the United States government) believes that the use of force is possible: (1) they have done it before, and that (2) it is the only language that their enemy, the Government of Ethiopia, understands.
The first assumption is flawed because of the fundamental change of circumstances indicated above. Apart from its own degeneration in all respects, the level of hatred for the TPLF in Ethiopia is demonstrated by the massive and vigorous mobilization against it across the country. (Indeed, TPLF understands this but still makes the rather implausible argument that its military campaign will last until it is able to collect all guns pointed at Tigray or its people. How exactly the stated objective could be achieved is only known by its leaders.)
The second and most important flaw in TPLF’s assessment pertains to its adversary’s capabilities and intentions. Because TPLF had rigged every aspect of Ethiopian life for its own benefits for three decades, the prospect of equal representation frightens it. In fact, most of the young people who are now fighting under TPLF’s banner were born and raised with the psychological benefit of being the ruling class, not to mention some preferential treatment that came along with hard political and economic power. They fear the loss of this power, and the loss of some of the territories that were gained through it. The broader Ethiopian people, on the other hand, are deeply fearful that the TPLF seeks to use its decades-long military and economic benefits to renegotiate an unfair and permanent advantage for the Tigrayan ethnic group, and moreover believes that after nearly thirty years of imposing its political will on Ethiopia through violence, the TPLF is not capable of accepting equality unless it is militarily defeated.
These real and primarily ethnic-based power rivalries are often misleadingly and even disingenuously packaged in anodyne political terms as the “unitary” or “federalist” camp. In reality, the Government’s use of military means is only a reaction to the TPLF’s use of military power to obtain the unfair political and economic gains that it cannot live without.
The Biden Administration is unhelpfully inserting itself into this rivalry by taking the side of the group that it considers most vulnerable: a highly disliked but still ambitious minority group that could easily fall victim to gross retaliatory measures. This concern is not illusory. Some horrific measures of retaliation have already occurred, as documented by the November 3, 2021 United Nations Human Rights Commission’s Report. The problem is that the Administration’s policy of coercing the Government through economic and diplomatic means has only had the effect of encouraging the TPLF to push further in hopes that the Government will eventually relent. But it won’t, and can’t. Instead, more and more blood is being spilled.
At the most basic level, the encouragement of a disliked minority organization’s ambitious military adventurism into neighboring territories under-estimates the lasting impact that the conflict will leave in these vast and highly populated areas inhabited by rival ethnic groups. It also under-estimates the level of resentment that TPLF’s retaliatory crimes that are being committed would create among the occupied people, who will only wait for their own turn to take revenge.
The TPLF appears to understand, and has offered a deliberately ambiguous admission, that it cannot takeover Addis Ababa for the purpose of reinstating its resented and rigged minority dictatorship. However, there is no indication that it has given up on its ambition of garnering disproportionate political and economic power through other means. It has for example just recently set up an unlikely coalition of fringe and newly created groups. It is thus no longer merely fighting to secure autonomy for Tigray or ensure Tigray’s equal representation, but to influence central power to the extent it could and — in the words of their spokesperson — by collecting all the guns in the country so that Tigray is no longer threatened.
TPLF has lost everything except its ambitions. No amount of foreign support could make its objective of disarming the entirety of the country and bringing its influence back achievable. But the TPLF is still alarmingly capable of continuing to cause mayhem all around if it continues to be supported by the Biden Administration. Thus, if the Administration has a genuine desire to help Ethiopia get back on track towards a democratic transition, it must recognize that TPLF’s military advantage is necessarily temporary and cannot infinitely be used to “influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion.” Incidentally, that is the definition of the term “terrorism” under 18 United States Code Section 2332b(g)(5).
If there is one thing that the past year has vividly demonstrated, it is that the Ethiopian people will not engage in criminal behavior against their neighbors. Almost all of the crimes that have been committed were committed by armed groups. The best protection that the Tigray people have is not the armed militia of the TPLF. It is the Ethiopian people. Our best hope is that the Tigrayan people will recognize in the wake of this horrible devastation that the TPLF’s military power is not used to protect the Tigray people, it is used to regain the disproportionate political power that its leaders have lost. Any foreign policy that regards the TPLF as the indispensable and only guardian of the Tigray people should examine the track record of the TPLF’s ethnic superiority narrative — praised and disseminated by its foreign apologists — and what it has brought to the people of Tigray.
Ethiopia will gain its natural equilibrium through a natural process. What causes the least harm is to leave Ethiopia’s political affairs to its own people. Attempting to force inadequately-informed and condescendingly prescribed solutions will only help prolong the agony for everyone involved. If the Administration wants to do something about the Ethiopian disaster, it must review its year-long policy of being on the side of the group that is most likely to prolong the misery for all Ethiopian people, particularly, the Tigray people who are repeatedly told that the only way that they can survive is through the use of force against the rest of Ethiopia. A policy that encourages this directly, indirectly, explicitly or tacitly will most certainly prolong Ethiopia’s instability.
Overall, the policy of supporting what at first looks like the most vulnerable group seems necessary and obvious but is so lacking in context and nuance that it calls for the unfortunate conclusion that “it’s the policy, stupid.”
 Dr. Haile is a lawyer practicing transnational law and holds a Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD) from the law school of the University of California at Berkley.