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

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4. A Fundamental Tenet of US Foreign Policy?

Even though the complex and cautious approach to the Ethio-Somali conflict seemed to depict the Carter administration’s recurrence to traditional Cold War policies, we believe that the President’s commitment to human rights was simultaneously sincere and of no secondary relevance. If, on the one hand, the US administration was trying to interpret the alarming turmoil provoked by the tensions  in the Horn and redefine its position in light of Ethiopia’s Head of State Mengistu Haile Mariam’s lacking interest in “maintaining lasting ties with the West”56 while tightening those with the Soviets, on the other hand President Carter expressed his firm belief in “moral fervor and humanitarian  earnestness,”57 stating that his administration had “reaffirmed America’s commitment to human rights  as a fundamental tenet of [its] foreign policy.”58

Drawing on “his strong convictions about […] the  US obligation to defend individual rights around the globe”,59 Carter added: “We Americans are as diverse a nation as the world has even seen. […] What draws us together, perhaps more than anything  else, is a belief in human freedom”.60 61 If on the one hand, Nancy Mitchell argues that “there was  continuity between Carter’s worldview and that of his predecessors”,62 on the other there is reason to believe that Carter wanted to detach himself from the “Nixon-Kissinger secretiveness [and] imperial  pretensions,” believing that “the antidote to Nixon’s demonstrable moral failure at home and  internationally […] was a morally inspired leadership”,63 which reflected the ideals of freedom, human dignity, and trust in the American government. If we look at his subsequent reconstruction of  the events in his memoirs, we can gather that Carter had “hoped and believed that the expansion of  human rights might [have been] the wave of the future throughout the world,” wanting “the United  States to be on the crest of this movement”.64

Yet, Nancy Mitchell, stating that Carter “lacked a clear ideology” and wondering whether he was “a liberal or a conservative, […] a realist or an idealist,” depicted him as “an anomaly”65 and his commitment to human rights in the context of the Ogaden  War as an instrument with which he “sought to fight the Cold War more effectively.”66 However,  being aware of the “increasing complexity and multipolarity of the world,”67 we believe that Carter came into office in unprecedented times and had to make unprecedented choices, which reflected the  administration’s wary response to the Ethio-Somali conflict. The President, attempting to mediate  between a traditional Cold War interpretation of the conflict and his policies on human rights, was well-aware of the fact that the United States could not afford another direct confrontation with the  Soviets in the Third World, sincerely seeking to address “African issues on their own merits rather  than as chips in the Cold War,”68 without, however, always being able to overcome the long-standing  East-West polarization.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, according to Nancy Mitchell, “a coherent narrative”69 of Carter’s policy in the Horn is impossible to reconstruct. Nevertheless, our  assumption is that Carter’s hesitancy in sending military aid to the former Soviet ally, as the relations  between Somalia and Ethiopia exacerbated, was intrinsically related to [his] […] concern for the  promotion of basic human rights, […] which [gave] substance to [his] commitment to restrain the  world arms trade”70 and translated into the “wait and see”71 attitude, which characterized the US  approach to the conflict. If on the one hand, the US attitude toward the Ogaden War seemed to be a way in which “the  US […] [could] find opportunities to play larger roles than they [did]” in the region, estimating that  in light of the conflict both “Ethiopia and Somalia [would] modify their relations with the Soviets,”72 on the other hand, we believe that to a certain extent the Carter administration addressed Somalia’s appeal to a right to self-determination of the people of the Ogaden as an example of the “increasingly  assertive political demands of ethnic minority groups against their national governments, [which],  raise[d] particularly nettlesome human rights issues” determining therefore “more difficult choices for the United States,”73 reflected in the administration’s hesitant decisions.

Furthermore, these two sided and apparently self-contradictory interpretations of the US approach to the tensions in the Horn can also be applied to the “cutback in US grant materiel [to Ethiopia], linked to its human rights  performance.”74 Even though “cuts in military aid to several countries,” besides Ethiopia, were  applied “in accordance with human rights provisions,”75 in the context of the African country we are led to wonder whether this really represented Carter’s sincere intentions of keeping his promise of  the promotion of human rights or an instrumental resolution given Ethiopia’s tightening relations with  the Soviet Union.  

Both African leaders presumably considered the US-USSR antagonism and strategic interest in the region of the Horn as breeding ground to shrewdly take advantage of the two superpowers’  potential military availability”.76 Nevertheless, President Carter, determined to “resolve [troubles]  peacefully”77 and to “shape a world which [would be] more responsive to […] the political self determination, and [to] basic human rights,”78 simultaneously declared his intentions to “keep up  dialogue with the Somalis,”79 without, however, “send[ing] arms to either side,”80 “look[ing] into the  possibility of some medical aid for both Ethiopia and Somalia.”81 Jimmy Carter might have been  accused of being “weak,”82 given his attempt to keep foot in both camps and his hesitant approach to  the conflict, however, we believe that his call “on Somalia to withdraw from Ethiopian territory, out  of the Ogaden area”83 and his cautious response to “meet the challenge of Soviet and Cuban intrusion”84 in the Horn represented an earnest attempt to organize his foreign policy around his firm  commitment to human rights.

In spite of this, from a Cold War perspective, we could state that the US has eventually gained access to the “preeminent [Soviet] base in Africa” (Berbera) and that the  Soviet Union “got no comparable base from Mengistu.”85 This could in itself be considered a win.  Highlighting, in fact, the controversial US role in the Ogaden War and its implications in a broader  Cold War context, Carter himself later admitted that “morally or theoretically, [they] were on the  wrong side […] defending Siad Barre, who had invaded Ethiopia.”86 

5. Conclusions

The starting point of our research was Brzezinski’s statement “implying a linkage between  Soviet activity in Africa and SALT.”87 Even though we think that the collapse of the SALT II is not intrinsically related to the arrival of Soviet and Cuban military advisers in the Ogaden, we believe  that the National Security Advisor’s image of the sand used to depict the Ethiopian region is not  fortuitous. It had in fact already been employed by Andrew Young to highlight the secondary strategic  relevance of the Ogaden in terms of a traditional Cold War play and the simultaneous importance that  the conflict had been invested in.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations’s statement seemed to us to represent in the most accurate way the complexity and self-contradiction of the US approach to  the Ogaden War and led us to wonder what the role of the administration’s commitment to human  rights in the conflict was and whether it represented a functional instrument to approach indirectly a Third World conflict in a Cold War context which would have otherwise faced popular opposition. Or else, was it an important element that ultimately reshaped US’s relations with the two nations  involved in the conflict, given Somalia’s appeal for the self-determination of the people of the Ogaden  and Carter’s will to reduce the delivery of arms? In our research, we attempted to demonstrate that it represented a combination of these two aspects, highlighting in broader terms Carter’s sincere desire  to overcome the traditional Cold War policies while still ultimately recurring to them in complex  situations such as that of the Horn.  

Thus, eventually we believe that President Jimmy Carter was not “a hardline Cold Warrior”88 from the beginning of his presidency as he is depicted by Nancy Mitchell and that his administration’s “a key component of his Cold War strategy.”90 However, it is important to stress that the aim of our research was not to contradict Professor Mitchell’s interpretation of the events in the Horn, which  was praised as “the first in depth account of President Carter’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crises  that his administration faced in the Horn of Africa.”91 With our research, we wanted to highlight the  complexity of the US approach to the Ogaden War by underlining that “relating human rights policy to [other] major foreign policy concerns it has been, and [would] continue to be, [for the United  States] a difficult task.”92 We believe that the events in the Horn represent one of the “instances in  which efforts to achieve [the] human rights goal […] ha[d] to be modified, delayed or curtailed in  deference to other important objectives”93 without however being “viewed as a lesser objective,”94 highlighting in broader terms Carter’s sincere intentions of overcoming the traditional East-West  dichotomy while still ultimately recurring to Cold War policies, accentuating the two main elements  at the heart of his presidency embodied in the title of Brzezinski’s memoirs: Power and Principle.95

6. Final Bibliography

Collection of published and archival documents:  

Books:  

  • Brzezinski Zbigniew, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981,  New York Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1983. 
  • Carter Jimmy, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, New York, Bantam Books, 1982  
  • Hunt Michael, The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance,  The University Press of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2007  
  • Mitchell Nancy, Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War, Washington, DC, Woodrow Wilson Center  Press, 2016  
  • Woodrofe Louise, 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  

Daily newspapers and weekly magazines:  

  • The New York Times  
  • Time 

Andrea Acqualagna, Lara Cej, Victoria Gargiulo

Notes

56 Central Intelligence Agency, “The Ethiopian Revolution and its Implications”, CIA-RDP97S00289R000100170015-5,  28 March 1977, Secret, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp79r00603a002900090003-2).

57 M. Hunt, The American Ascendancy, p. 245.  

58 Central Intelligence Agency, “Human rights”, CIA-RDP91M00696R000100030020-1-2, 7 September 1977,  Confidential, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp91m00696r000100030020-1), p.6. 

59 M. Hunt, The American Ascendancy, p.246.  

60 J. Carter, “Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame”, (available at  https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-commencement-exercises-the-university-notre-dame).

61 The use of the first person plural pronoun “we” doesn’t seem to be fortuitous and might have been employed to  highlight Carter’s attempt to overcome the widespread “national sense of despair and even cynicism (in considerable part  a result of the Watergate affair and the Vietnam War)” (B. I. Kaufman, Presidential Profiles The Carter Years, New  York, Facts on File, 2006, p. v). If we analyze former President Gerald Ford’s inaugural speech, we can see that most of  the sentences are characterized by the use of the first person singular pronoun “I”. “I feel it is my first duty to […]”, “I  intend […]”, “In all my public and private acts as your President, I expect to […]” (G. R. Ford’s, “Remarks Upon Taking  the Oath of Office as President”, Gerard R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, Digital Collection, 9 August 1974,  (available at https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/speeches/740001.asp). This is something whose importance  should not be underestimated and which remarkably stresses the difference between the two presidents. 

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

63 M. Hunt, The American Ascendancy, p. 245.  

64 J. Carter, Keeping Faith, p.144. 

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

66 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p.779.  

67 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p.110.  

68 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p.302.  

69 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p.30.  

70 J. Carter, “Security Assistance Programs Letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate Transmitting  Proposed Legislation”, 28 March 1977, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project,  (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/security-assistance-programs-letter-the-speaker-the-house and-the-president-the-senate). 

71 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, “Why Just ‘Wait and See’?”, p. 39. Louisa Woodrofe devotes an  entire chapter to describe President Carter’s attitude in the context of the Ogaden War. 

72 Central Intelligence Agency, “Interagency assessment of the Ethipian-Somali situation”, CIA RDP79R00603A002900090003-2, 10 August 1977, Secret, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia rdp79r00603a002900090003-2), p.6.

73 Central Intelligence Agency, “International Issues Review”, CIA-RDP80T00942A000500010005-4, 29 June 1979,  Secret, (available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80t00942a000500010005-4), p. 22. 

74 Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP80R01362A000200100001-6, “Impact of the US Stand on Human Rights”, 11  May, Secret, (https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80r01362a000200100001-6), p. 17. 

75 C. Vance, “Address by Secretary of State Vance”, Athens, Georgia (University of Georgia Law School), 30 April 1977,  US State Department, Foreign Relations, 1977-1980, Volume I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1974-1980 (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v01/d37).  

76 While, in fact, Mengistu had rapidly learned “how to manipulate superpowers” (L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of  the Ogaden, p. 35), Siad Barre was also “stat[ing] […] that the warmth of Somalia’s relations with Washington and  Moscow would be determined ‘in good part’ by how helpful each superpower was to Somalia in its long-term contest  with Ethiopian ‘imperialism’” (N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 233). 

77 J. Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, New York, Bantam Books, 1982, p. 254. 

78 J. Carter, “Address at the Commencement Exercises at the United States Naval Academy”, 7 June 1978, online by  Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, (available at  https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-commencement-exercises-the-united-states-naval-academy ).

79 Policy Review Committee, “Summary of Conclusions of a Policy Review Committee Meeting” (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d27).  

80 J. Carter, “Interview With the President Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Representatives of Black  Media Associations”, 16 February 1978, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency  Project, (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/interview-with-the-president-remarks-and-question and-answer-session-with-1).  

81 Policy Review Committee, “Summary of Conclusions of a Policy Review Committee Meeting” (available at  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v17p1/d27).  

82 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 129.  

83 J. Carter, “Interview With the President Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Representatives of Black  Media Associations”, (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/interview-with-the-president-remarks and-question-and-answer-session-with-1).

84 J. Carter, “The President’s News Conference” , 25 May 1978, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The  American Presidency Project (available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/the-presidents-news-conference 1004). 

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

86 J. Carter, in N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 804.  

87 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 12.  

88 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 536. 

89 L. Woodrofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden, p. 39.  

90 N. Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa, p. 789.  

91 Ambassador H. Schaffer Howard (Chair of the American Academy of Diplomacy Book Committee in 2016) in occasion of the  Douglas Dillon Award for a book of distinction on the practice of American Diplomacy, won in 2016 by Nancy Mitchell’s Jimmy  Carter in Africa, (available at https://www.academyofdiplomacy.org/recipient/nancy%20mitchell%20jimmy%20carter%20in%20africa/).  

92 “Human Rights”, CIA-RDP91M00696R000100030020,(available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia rdp91m00696r000100030020-1), p. 6.  

93 “Human Rights”, CIA-RDP91M00696R000100030020,(available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia rdp91m00696r000100030020-1), p. 6.  

94 “Human Rights”, CIA-RDP91M00696R000100030020,(available at https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia rdp91m00696r000100030020-1), p. 6.  

95 Z. Brzezinski, Power and Principle.

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