A Cold Warrior Warmly Promoting Human Rights?  The case of the Ogaden War (part I)

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

1. Introduction  

According to Nancy Mitchell, Jimmy Carter “was a complex man who led the United States  in a complex era.”1 We believe that the complexity of Carter’s presidency, embodied in the simultaneous juxtaposition of a “desire to move beyond the Cold War”2 and the “failure to establish well-defined parameters for superpower behavior in the Third World”3 which influenced  “rising Cold War emotions,”4 is represented in the attitude of his administration toward the Horn of Africa. Even though “the region […] had already received military support from the superpowers [US and USSR] and therefore contributed peripherally to the Cold War competition,”5 it is after the arrival of Soviet and Cuban military advisers in the aftermath of the Somali invasion of Ethiopia’s territory of the Ogaden and Somalia’s appeal to “a right to self-determination”6 of its people, that the Horn “became a major Cold War hotspot.”7

On the one hand, Carter’s absolute “commitment to human rights8 seemed to emerge “as the core idea around which [the President] hoped to organize his foreign policy,”9 and “to respond to Third World conflicts”10 without recurring to traditional Cold War policies. On the other hand, the administration’s commitment to human rights simultaneously seemed to assume secondary importance in the case of the Horn of Africa in the aftermath of the Soviet response to Somalia’s claims in the Ogaden, highlighting how Carter “questioned, in the wake of Vietnam, the need to  contain the Soviet Union everywhere, but he did not want it to expand anywhere on his watch,”11 relating to Third World issues “through an anticommunist lens.”12    

This article intends  to analyze “the cautious American approach to”13 the Ethio Somali War, fought from July 1977 to March 1978, with emphasis on the role that Carter’s  commitment to human rights played in the US response to the conflict. Many are the questions this article would like to address. Firstly, whether we can really consider Carter’s commitment to “human rights […] the central theme of [the administration’s] foreign policy14 that ultimately reshaped US’s relations with Ethiopia and Somalia, given Somalia’s appeal  for the self-determination of the people of the Ogaden and Carter’s will “to reduce the rate of delivery of arms overseas.”15 Or else, if the Ethio-Somali War represents “a stripped-down crisis, not befogged by issues of race, human rights, and congressional wrangling [and] Carter’s policy toward  it was a conventional Cold War power play,”16 if the commitment to human rights represent just a façade, a “cudgel to bash the Soviet Union”17 and the only instrument to carry out traditional Cold War policies, given “the wounds of Vietnam […] the Watergate debacle [and the][…] economic and military constraints”18 of the time. Can we consider it a combination of these two interpretations? Moreover, these questions raise in turn a set of broader questions on Carter’s presidency: Was Jimmy Carter “determined to set a new agenda”19 in foreign relations? Or else, was he “from the beginning of his presidency to its end, a Cold Warrior”20 as he is depicted by Nancy Mitchell? Did he attempt to deal “with individual countries on a case-by-case basis”21 or did he address “the influence of each individual Third World conflict on superpower relations”22 without overcoming the traditional Cold  War worldview?    

Both primary and secondary sources led us to believe that “Carter did bring a new perspective to the White House.”23 His administration’s commitment to human rights, if applied to the conflict in the Horn of Africa, can simultaneously be interpreted as an instrument applied to carry out US’s interests in the region in a broader Cold War context and as a real concern of Carter’s presidency which partially determined the US cautious response to the events in the Horn. If, in fact, Carter’s presidency revolved around  “the effective promotion of human rights,”24 the President also acknowledged that “this does not mean that we can conduct our foreign policy by rigid moral maxims,”25 underlining the complexity in “the case of human rights [which] require[s] a careful weighing of the circumstances in individual countries.”26

2. SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden?  

The starting point of our research was the National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s  “provocative statement in his memoirs”27 Power and Principle “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.”28 This statement led us to believe that the US response to the arrival of Soviet and Cuban military advisers in the aftermath of the Somali invasion of Ethiopia’s territory of the Ogaden was intrinsically connected to the “demise of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty”29 and represented therefore the first domino tassel of the “dramatic transformation […] that shattered détente and spelled failure for another presidency.”30 However, a deeper analysis of the topic led us to reach the same conclusions as Louise Woodrofe and Nancy Mitchell: “Brzezinski had successfully created a linkage,”31 oversimplifying the complex process that led to an intensification of “Cold War [tensions] that [Carter] had sought to ameliorate”32 and overcome.    

Even though we believe that Brzezinski’s “claim that the war in the Ogaden [had] killed SALT is [in fact] inaccurate,”33 what we found striking is the image of the sand employed by Brzezinski to refer to the Ethiopian region. This image, which reflects US policymakers’ recurrence to stereotyped images in the depiction of the Horn of Africa, was in fact also used by the US Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young to highlight the fact that the majority of “Americans had never heard of the Ogaden until the Soviets and Cubans had gone there. ‘Then all of a sudden, […] there is this enormous strategic significance in a thousand miles of sand.’”34 Young’s statement seemed to us to represent in the most accurate way the complexity and self-contradiction of Carter administration’s  approach to war, highlighting the secondary strategic relevance of the Ethiopian region in terms of a traditional East-West dichotomy and “the [simultaneous] importance of the conflict to the making of  American foreign policy during this period.”35

3. A Cold Warrior from day one? 

One of Mitchell’s most poignant remarks about President Carter was that he “was a Cold Warrior from day one.”36 Despite his publicized desire to quench the East-West divide and his commitment to pursue a kind of policy that would promote human rights in an absolute way, his actions in the Horn of Africa could support this statement in that they make it seem that the President had an interest in challenging the Soviet Union by strengthening ties with Somalia who was drifting away from Soviet influence.  

When tensions were rising in the Horn of Africa due to Ethiopia’s tightening relations with  the Soviet Union and Somalia’s ever-present territorial claims of the Ogaden, Carter wanted Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to “move in every possible way to get Somalia to be [their] friend.”37 The Carter administration was well-aware of the situation in the region, as a paper prepared by the Policy Review Committee states that there is “a possibility that Somalia will attempt to capitalize on Ethiopia’s state of confusion to encroach further into the Ethiopian Ogaden.”38 As Mitchell states, “selling weapons to Somalia would arm an aggressor” and it “would contradict Carter’s stated high moral principles.”39 A potential Somali incursion into the Ogaden would also breach one of the resolutions adopted in 1964 by the Organization of African Unity in Cairo, which stated that “all members pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.”40 The aforementioned institution was referred to by Carter himself in his United Nations address before the General Assembly, where he stated that the US was “committed to the strengthening of the peacemaking capabilities”41 of the OAU. It is  therefore difficult to imagine why the administration would consider supporting Somalia in light of  the “continuing strong national commitment to the ‘Greater Somalia’ concept,”42 which aimed ultimately at the unification of all ethnic Somalis regardless of national borders. 

A key episode was the meeting between Jimmy Carter and the Somali Ambassador to the United States Abdullahi Addou on 16 June 1977, when the Ambassador “described a problem of human rights with Ethiopia,” indicating that “two million Somalis in Ethiopia […] want[ed] to be free of Ethiopian rule,” and asked for US help stating that “Somalia need[ed] both economic and  military assistance.” Carter affirmed that the administration was “trying to work with the Saudis and  […] European allies to see that Somalia [had] adequate defense capabilities without relying on the  Soviet Union.”43 

Another significant moment during the meeting was the Ambassador’s claim that there was no political oppression in Somalia, contradicted by that year’s Amnesty International Report, which stated the presence of several prisoners of conscience in the country, including former Prime Minister Mohamed Egal and an “unknown number of others,” whose reason of detention seemed to be “their disapproval of the military regime.”44 What is therefore surprising is Carter’s choice to help Somalia, even if with defensive arms, which would contrast his predicaments on human rights, since he was  informed about President of Somalia Siad Barre’s intentions in the Ogaden. Therefore, it proves difficult not to concur with Mitchell’s view that Carter “saw the world through Cold War glasses.”45 

In July 1977, Somalia invaded the Ogaden “attempt[ing] to capitalize on the weakness of  revolution-torn Ethiopia.”46 In a memorandum from 9 July 1977, Cyrus Vance conveyed Siad Barre’s request for arms and expressed his doubts on whether the administration should take into consideration this type of aid, insisting that this invasion was “an effort with which [they] clearly [did] not want to be identified.”47 Nevertheless, on 27 July 1977 a New York Times article announced that the “United States [was] ready to join other governments in providing military assistance for  Somalia to reduce its long‐standing reliance on the Soviet Union” and that the US wanted Somalia to know that “it [did] not have to depend on the Soviet Union but [could] obtain arms from other sources,”48 stating that the arms would be for defense use only. Moreover, the article stated that “the  objective would be to encourage Somalia to lessen its dependence on the Soviet Union and thus to diminish the Kremlin’s influence in a strategic corner of Africa.”49 Mitchell criticizes this decision by  saying that “Washington’s idea that it could provide Somalia defensive arms flew in the face of all Siad Barre’s explanations of what he intended to do with them.”50

During the first month of the conflict, Carter began to be more wary of the implications of the US involvement in the Horn. When acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote in a memorandum that there was an ongoing study of the possible consequences of not supplying arms to Somalia, Carter’s hesitancy culminated in the critical comment that he left in the margin: “Ok – I’m not sure what we should do – best to minimize military aid, probably.”51

The turning point was the Carter administration’s decision to drop the arms plan for Somalia, which was announced on 2 September 1977, when the State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III stated that “providing arms to Somalia […] would add fuel to a fire [they] are more interested in putting out.”52 The Policy Review Committee decided in August that they should continue relations with the Somalis despite there being no chance of an arms shipment, concluding that they “want[ed] to enhance [their] longer-range chances for increasing [their] influence in both Ethiopia and Somalia while doing what [they could] to ensure that the Soviets gain[ed] as little as possible […] from their […] involvement.”53 

In January 1978, after learning the scale of the Cuban and Soviet involvement in the Horn, Carter stated in a news conference that the administration had “would use [its] influence to bring about peace without shipping arms to the disputing parties and without […] injecting [itself] into disputes that could best be resolved by Africans,” bashing the Soviet Union saying they “have done just the opposite” and contributed to the war by selling “excessive quantities of arms and weapons both to Somalia and Ethiopia.”54 Mitchell points out that “the Americans condemned the Soviets for  supplying weapons to the victims of aggression, while they remained silent about their friends’ well known support of the aggressor,”55 meaning that the administration was aware of the help that Somalia had received from various countries.  

Taking all this into account, it is deductible that the American position in the context of the Ogaden War was to an extent guided by the desire to gain influence in a territory previously closely tied to the Soviet Union with little regard for Carter’s absolute commitment to human rights, which were instrumentally employed as a kind of pretext to condemn the Soviet role in the conflict.

Andrea Acqualagna, Lara Cej, Victoria Gargiulo


1 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, Race and the Cold War, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2016, p. 770. 

2 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, p. 245. 

3 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, the United States, the Horn of Africa and the Démise of Détente, Kent  (OH), Kent State University Press, 2013, p. 133.  

4 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, p. 245.  

5 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 2.  

6 Central Intelligence Agency, “Africa Review”, CIA-RDP79T00912A002700010033-4, 22 December 1978, Secret,  General CIA Records Document, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp79t00912a002700010033-4), p. 9.

7 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 2.  

8J. Carter, “Inaugural Address”, 20 January 1977, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American  Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/241475).  

9 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, p. 245.  

10 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 14.  

11 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 770.  

12 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 262.  

13 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 27.

14 J. Carter, Keeping Faith, Memoirs of a President, New York, Bantam Books, 1982, p. 145. 

15 J. Carter, “Press Briefing in Plains, Georgia”, 29 July 1976, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The  American Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347627).

16 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 805.  

17 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 771.  

18 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 15.  

19 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, p. 245.  

20 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 810.  

21 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 63.  

22 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 9.  

23 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 780.  

24 J. Carter, Keeping Faith, p. 143.  

25 J. Carter, “Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame”, 22 May 1977, online by Gerhard  Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/243018).

26 Central Intelligence Agency, “Human Rights”, CIA-RDP91M00696R000100030020, 7 September 1977, Confidential,  General CIA Records(available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp91m00696r000100030020-1), p. 1.

27 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 8.  

28 Z. Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981, New York Farrar Strauss  & Giroux, 1983, p. 189.  

29 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 2.  

30 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, p. 248.  

31 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 92.  

32 M. H. Hunt, The American ascendancy, p. 251.  

33 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 804.  

34 A. Young in N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 784.  

35 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 84. 

36 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 21.  

37 S. Cloud, “With Jimmy from Dawn to Midnight”, Time Magazine, Vol. 109, n. 16, 18 April 1977, p. 15. 

38 Policy Review Committee, “Paper Prepared by the Policy Review Committee”, undated, US State Department, Foreign  Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XVII, Horn of Africa, Part 1 (available at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977- 80v17p1/d10). 

39 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 241.  

40 Organization of African Unity Secretariat, “Resolutions Adopted by the First Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State  and Government Held in Cairo, UAR, from 17 to 21 July 1964” (available at https://au.int/sites/default/files/decisions/9514- 1964_ahg_res_1-24_i_e.pdf). 

41 J. Carter, “United Nations Address Before the General Assembly”, 4 October 1977, online by Gerhard Peters and John  T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/242634).

42 CIA “Africa Review”, CIA-RDP79T00912A002700010033-4, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia rdp79t00912a002700010033-4).

43 “Memorandum for the Record”, Washington, 16 June 1977, US State Department, Foreign Relations, 1977–1980,  Volume XVII, Horn of Africa, Part 1 (available at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d20).

44 Amnesty International, “Amnesty International Annual Report 1977”, 1 January 1977, (available at  https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/006/1977/en/). 

45 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 781.  

46 Central Intelligence Agency, “The Ogaden Situation”, CIA-RDP97S00289R000100190006-3, 7 April 1980, Secret,  General CIA Records (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp97s00289r000100190006-3), p. 7. 

47 C. Vance, “Memorandum from the Secretary of State to President Carter”, Washington, 9 July 1977, US State  Department, Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XVII, Horn of Africa, Part 1 (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d21). 

48 G. Hovey, “U.S. Offers an Alternative Source of Arms to Somalia”, The New York Times, 27 July 1977. (available at  https://www.nytimes.com/1977/07/27/archives/us-offers-an-alternative-source-of-arms-to-somalia-its-ready-to.html).

49 G. Hovey, “U.S. Offers”, (available at https://www.nytimes.com/1977/07/27/archives/us-offers-an-alternative-source-of-arms-to somalia-its-ready-to.html). 

50 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 328. 

51 W.M. Christopher, “Memorandum from Acting Secretary of State Christopher to President Carter”, Washington, 3  August 1977, US State Department, Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XVII, Horn of Africa, Part 1 (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d25). 

52 “U.S. Drops Arms Plan for Somalia”, The New York Times, 2 September 1977, (available at https://www.nytimes.com/1977/09/02/archives/us drops-arms-plan-for-somalia.html). 

53 Policy Review Committee, “Summary of Conclusions of a Policy Review Committee Meeting”, Washington, 25  August 1977, US State Department, Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Volume XVII, Horn of Africa, Part 1 (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d27). 

54 J. Carter, “The President’s News Conference”, 12 January 1978, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The  American Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/244600).

55 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 438. 


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