Influx of military personnel overwhelms U.S. embassy in Ethiopia

By Carl LeVan

According to a “sensitive but unclassified” report from the U.S. State Department’s Inspector General on the US Embassy in Ethiopia just released, the Embassy suffered high staff turnover in the wake of unpopular decisions pushed through by the Bush Administration.  As a result, it is struggling to cope with important changes, including a pending facility move and a massive influx of Department of Defense staff.

The report describes the Embassy as “akin to a forward military base” and raises concerns about civilian staff being overwhelmed by DOD personnel who need to be more closely controlled by the diplomats.  According to the IG, the Embassy staff is “somewhat underpowered in terms of dealing with other agencies within the mission, including a dozen or so Department of Defense elements, some not entirely under chief of mission authority and/or prone to resist the chargé’s authority almost to the point of insubordination” (emphasis added).

This elaborates upon a problem documented in a 2006 Minority Staff report prepared by Senator Richard Lugar’s staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Embassies as Command Posts in the Anti-Terror Campaign.  It is also important because DOD emphasized partnerships with civilian authority in order to sell its Africa Command (AFRICOM) to the American and African publics.  The IG report offers troubling evidence that three years after the controversies slipped from the public view, lines of authority remained blurred and the diplomatic ingredient of the “3 D’s” remains overshadowed by defense.   The DOD staff embedded in the Embassy also includes a media relations team, suggesting involvement in the “phase zero” operations designed to shape potential conflict environments.  As numerous former diplomats have told me over the last year, U.S. ambassadors have very limited control over these operations so they often work at odds with U.S. diplomatic strategies.

Training and Foreign Aid Despite Human Rights Violations?

A December 2009 visit by a senior Department of Defense official (reportedly the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa Vicki Huddleston) increased the likelihood that Ethiopia will regain its eligibility for Section 1206 military assistance.   Unless strict conditions have been satisfied, the Leahy Amendment prohibits assistance furnished under the Foreign Assistance Act or the Arms Export Control Act to any foreign security forces if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.  Ethiopia was originally de-qualified for this aid following the 2005 elections.  Today, evidence of such violations is abundant, notwithstanding the relative calm on Election Day this year.  As Human Rights Watch pointed out last week in Congressional testimony, “voters were intimidated at almost every stage” of the process.  Repression remains widespread, thanks in no small part to a sweeping Anti-Terrorism Proclamation issued last year.  (For some solid and balanced comparative research on the effects of exporting American counter-terror legislation, check out the work of political scientist Beth Whitaker at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.)

Thus the likely resumption of military training and financing is surprising, and in my opinion threatens to bring the U.S. back to the bad old Cold War days of choosing security over democracy.  Remember El Salvador?  Apparently not.  Even though the Embassy staff is managing well in a number of areas, the Inspector General further suggests that an increase in government repression will not alter the U.S. reliance on Ethiopia to provide stability for the region.