“The Lion of Judah in the New World” – Book Review

By Messay Kebede

The latest book of Professor Theodore M. Vestal, The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa (Praeger, 2011) presents an insightful, focused, and scholarly portrait of HaileSelassie. Revolving around the central issue of knowing how Haile Selassie became the subject of a wide American adulation, this book of a great friend of Ethiopia gives fresh insights into US policy in Africa since World War II and a penetrating analysis of the emperor’s rise and fall.

To begin with, Vestal avoids the too common path of a one-sided portrait of Haile Selassie. He does not describe the emperor as “a demoniac despot administering large doses of cruelty” (xiii). Nor does he follow the path of mystification, of “lofty, lyrical language of praise” (xiii). Instead, Vestal presents a balanced account in which merits and flaws are spelled out. More importantly, the account is such that it forces us to face the enigmatic disjunction of HaileSelassie’s reign, namely, his international fame and importance and his disappointing internal performances and final disgrace. As Vestal aptly puts it: “it is perhaps difficult to understand how a ruler so reviled in his homeland for more than 35 years by successor governments could have been such an international celebrity and be so royally received abroad” (xi).

In his analysis of the rise of Haile Selassie to absolute power, Vestal gives a proper place to his consummate political skills, notably his shrewdness, which helped him “outsmart, outmaneuver, and outwait the xenophobic, isolationist conservatives who stood in his way” (21). Yet to reduce his triumph to shrewdness would be one-sided: the full impact of his personality appears only when shrewdness is coupled with charismatic traits. HaileSelassie shrouded his political skills with a thick cover of charm that seduced not only many Ethiopians for a long time, but also the international audience, in particular the American public.

Vestal speaks of “a perplexing figure,” of “elusive” character (190) and provides pertinent examples of the complexity of Haile Selassie’s personality. The purpose of this psychological analysis is obvious: the question why this shrewd politician missed the necessity of reforms cannot be answered without some access into his deeper soul. Likewise, Ethiopia became a major beneficiary of US aid thanks to the impressive personality of Haile Selassie over and above its strategic interest, which was essentially confined to the American policy of Soviet containment and the use of the Kagnew communication facilities in Eritrea. Americans were fascinated with the dignity and august figure of the emperor. For instance, Time magazine named Haile Selassie “Man of the Year” twice.

In light of the limited interest of Ethiopia to the US, Haile Selassie’s offensive of charm, Vestal convincingly argues, was instrumental in the forging of close ties. Ethiopia’s participation in the Korean War and several state visits to the US further strengthened the ties. In addition to appreciable economic and military aids, the combination of diplomacy with charm secured US support for the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia.

The domestic usage of external policy is another facet of Haile Selassie’s political acumen. His attempt to gain international fame through an offensive of charm was a component part of his strategy to overshadow and defeat his internal opponents. Doubtless, Haile Selassie succeeded in imposing his absolute rule on Ethiopia by means of fame gained abroad. His internal opponents looked mean and petty in the face of his international grandeur.

Among the insightful contributions of Vestal’s book is a realistic analysis of US policy in Ethiopia. Though ties were close enough for Ethiopia to become a major beneficiary of American economic and military aid, they were fraught with ambiguity and constant misunderstandings. In particular, unable to understand how democratic governments work, Haile Selassie was constantly unhappy with the amount of US military and economic aids. From his exchanges with American presidents, he expected immediate and generous assistance, and so overlooked the fact that they are limited by “congressional control of spending” (101) and other domestic factors.

The US government, in its turn, was dealing with an outdated regime and an obstinate monarch whose ambition exceeded by far the status of the country he was representing. To make matters worse, in the face of mounting domestic dissatisfaction, Haile Selassie proved reluctant to effect reforms, convinced as he was that his regime “would continue as it had for almost 40 years under his enlightened rule” (160). At a time when growing Somali threat and insurgency in Eritrea compelled Haile Selassie to ask for more military aid, the prevailing view in the American government was that Ethiopia needed “faster paced change and reform” (173) rather than more arms. To crown it all, the operations at Kagnew Station ceased in 1974, depriving Ethiopia of its strategic interest (183). In other words, “at the advent of the 1970s the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia was in decline” (173).

We all know what happened next and Vestal’s book goes a long way in showing the premises of the little effort of the US government to intervene and save the imperial regime from the assault of revolutionary forces. Together with the dissatisfaction and rebellious mood of an increasing number of Ethiopians, the international opinion and the American public were liberated from the spell of Haile Selassie’s myth. Thus, Haile Selassie’s obsession with absolute power had finally defeated his uncommon political acumen.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s tragedy will not end with Haile Selassie, since the same obsession for absolute power defines his successors to the point of obstructing their political acuity, to which they owe their ascent to power. Blinded by his early victories, his first successor, Mengistu Hailemariam, lost power because he could not reverse the infirmities induced by his dictatorial rule. The second successor, Meles, is stuck with the same fixation, which leads him to pursue the destructive policy of “after me the deluge” characteristic of all dictators.

Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected]
Prof. Theodore Vestal can be reached at [email protected]