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  • Fitsum Achamyeleh Alemu

The “No - Free Lunch”- US Policy on Ethiopia, and what needs to be done to mitigate its damage?

Fitsum Achamyeleh Alemu is an Ethiopian American lawyer and researcher. He holds Juris Doctor degree from Eotvos Lorand University.

“Your Majesty, we treasure deeply this relationship. It is my genuine and most earnest hope that succeeding generations of our peoples will continue to reinforce the solid edifice of American-Ethiopian amity and understanding.”

President Lyndon Johnson on February 14, 1967, at the White House at a dinner honoring Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Generous and fair-minded to a fault, most Americans are not as fully engaged in world affairs as perhaps they ought to be, given the enormous sums of money spent, and the terrible risks U.S. soldiers’ lives put on the line--in their names. They also place far too much faith in the media, which have a symbiotic relationship with the policy-makers, who often set the agenda for the media, while at the same time being influenced by a lot of media hype.

Not only the United States Federal Government, but also American churches, charities, universities, and even individuals set up schools, universities, hospitals and other centers in Ethiopia. The US also helped to modernize Ethiopia’s army. Ethiopia is also a beneficiary of African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). For the last 27 years, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia immigrants have been a beneficiary of the Diversity Lottery. The US also has provided safe heaven by granting refugee and asylum status for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians.The remittance from the US is one of the backbones of the Ethiopian economy. But most importantly, 50-60 percent of its budget comes from foreign aid. [i] It has received $3.5 billion in recent years. [ii] “Compared to other nations, the U.S. by far spends more foreign aid than anyone else.”[iii]

Ethiopia is a nation of contrasts which has intrigued outsiders for millennia. It is one of the worst human rights offenders, an impoverished and poorly managed country--where wars, famines, droughts and periodic locust infestations are perennial fixtures. For its children, though, it is an ancient nation with a rich history. It is also a country located in one of the most strategic hotspots of the world- in the Horn of Africa. That has made her made her vulnerable to attacks, and crucial real estate .

After the Second World War, the conniving British tried in vain to keep this independent country under their Protectorate. But Emperor Haileselassie and patriotic Ethiopian resisted their attempt. The new partnership with the United States helped to end that tension-filled relationship with the British.[iv] Following this development--during and after the Truman administration--Ethiopia would become one of the major recipients of U.S. foreign aid, a favor which Ethiopia returned by sending its army to Korea and Congo to support the U.S.-led United Nations peace-keeping missions, and by providing the U.S. with a communications base in the then-Ethiopian province of Eritrea, which allowed the U.S. to eavesdrop on regional powers’ radio transmissions.

For about four decades, U.S. policy toward Africa was driven entirely by the U.S.’s competition with the Soviet Union, and the Horn of Africa was one of the battlegrounds where this competition played out.[v] However, the U.S.’s level of involvement was rather spasmodic, being more active in the Carter and early Reagan administrations than at any other time.[vi]

This paper aims to briefly survey the shifting U.S. foreign-policy positions on Ethiopia and offer some suggestions.

A Brief Survey of Successive U.S. Foreign-Policy ‘Doctrines’

The foreign policy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman focused on containing the spread of Communism and on providing both military and economic assistance to nations resisting communism.

The Truman administration had a succinct position, which declared, "Whenever and wherever anti-communist governments are threatened by indigenous insurgency, foreign invasion, or even diplomatic pressure[...]the U.S. will supply political and, most of all, military aid."[vii] These words summed up U.S. foreign-policy for a long time.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Doctrine was essentially an expansion of these policies. “..JFK, concerned about increased Communist activity in Africa, planned to expand Kagnew Station and to preserve the Emperor's moderating influence among Africans. Personal diplomacy of the two leaders resulted in Ethiopia's receiving arms and, in the U.S.,'s expanding Kagnew and maintaining a strong presence in the Horn.” [viii]

Jimmy Carter's strategy, in contrast, emphasized human rights and diplomacy over fighting communism. By the time the Carter administration replaced the Ford administration and more or less completed its transition process--from late 1976 to early spring 1977--the Soviets had offered the Mengistu regime about $1 billion in military aid, and his regime was on the verge of switching its military allegiance to Moscow. For its part, Carter’s new National Security team, which included Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Andrew Young, was in the process of washing its hands off Ethiopia and cut off all arms deliveries to the country, [ix] due to its massive human-rights violations. Predictably, Ethiopia’s move into the Soviet orbit took a huge portion of Carter’s time—especially at the beginning of his term.[x]

Even though hind-sight is, as they say, 20/20, some experts believe that, given the stakes for the United States, as well as for the people of the region, the military-aid relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia should not have been severed completely, because that decision apparently removed all further constrains from Mengistu.[xi] Not yet the dyed-in-the wool adherent to communism he would later pretend to be, Mengistu was in desperate need of weapons, and he would have acceded to certain U.S. demands on human rights and other issues in exchange for arms deliveries to Ethiopia.[xii] To that end, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met President Carter, he urged him not to sever relations, and to give Mengistu a second chance, but President Carter rejected it out of hand.[xiii] In fact, Carter’s National Security Adviser was urging him to deploy the U.S. Navy to the Horn of Africa, and provide air cover to the invading Somali troops, and military aid to the Somalis and Eritreans--but none of that happened.[xiv]

For its part, the so-called Reagan-Doctrine emphasized covert military aid for “freedom fighters” and guerilla movements—in general, those fighting against Soviet-backed clients.[xv] During Reagan’s presidency, the message to dictators and would-be dictators was clear: “If you claim to be anti-communist, his administration was not going to give you any trouble”.[xvi] This kind of economic and political support gave the rogue regimes of the Horn of Africa license to commit flagrant human rights violations. Thus, in 1981, Ronald Reagan authorized the CIA to provide $500,000 per year to the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance (EPDA).[xvii] However, since this organization proved to be incapable of delivering on its promises, the U.S. switched its backing to the Tigray People Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.), the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (E.P.L.F.). That was the purpose of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s visit to Sudan in 1985.[xviii] In 1984, the widely-covered Ethiopian famine would give the U.S. an opportunity to weaken Moscow’s satellite state, Derg-led Ethiopia--by means of ‘soft power’. During that famine, while the U.S.S.R. provided less than 1 percent of the emergency food aid needed, the Western world provided 99 percent.[xix] One of the main reasons for the defeat of the well-trained army of Ethiopia, by the T.P.L.F. and E.P.L.F. rebels, was the shifting policies, loss of the Cold-War, and eventual fall of the U.S.SR, which was Ethiopia’s main supplier of weapons.

In May 1991, when the Ethiopian representatives travelled to London to negotiate with the rebel groups, it was the U.S. government--acting as a self-appointed protector of Ethiopia--which permitted the E.P.L.F., T.P.L.F., and OLF, to take over from Mengistu and govern Ethiopia. Since then, and until its departure from power in 2018, the T.P.L.F.-led-regime was given a monopoly on power in Ethiopia. The Clinton government, which took over in 1992, referred to Meles Zenawi, Isaias Afwerki, Yoweri Mussevini and Paul Kagame as the ”new generation of African leaders” and praised them for their commitment to democracy.[xx] Thirty-years on, while one of those leaders, Meles Zenawi, was deceased, the other three are still alive and well, ruling their respective countries, practicing various shades of autocracy. Bill Clinton traveled to Africa in 1992, to “get first-hand information,” yet his policy decisions or foreign aid would not prevent the Ethio-Eritrean war, or the genocides in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or Liberia. But consistent with his predecessors’ policies, Clinton gave the T.P.L.F.-led regime hefty economic, military, and diplomatic support. This closeness with regional leaders also created an opportunity for Clinton’s aides, especially Susan Rice--who is in her third iteration as an Africa-expert in the Democratic administration--to cozy-up with high-level Ethiopian officials, especially T.P.L.F. leader, Meles Zenawi.

After September 11, 2011—by which time George W. Bush had replaced Clinton, and been in power for just over eight months--fighting terrorism having become the over-riding objective of the United States. Ethiopia would become a trusted partner in the fight against terror. Thus, even during the Bush era, the Ethiopian government continued to enjoy U.S. economic and military aid. Even though the U.S. State Department continued to issue its annual human-rights report, lambasting Ethiopia for its gross human-rights violations, torture of prisoners, and silencing of dissent, the other branches of the United States government--U.S.A.I.D. and the World Bank—would continue to bankroll the E.P.R.D.F. To be fair, not all U.S. policies during the Bush years were bad. Its President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the Malaria Initiative, saved millions of lives in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.

Next, even though the Obama Administration singled out “strengthen[ing] democratic institutions, fostering broad-based and sustainable economic growth, combat[ting] disease and improve[ing] public health, preventing armed conflict, and helping address transnational threats and challenges”[xxi] as its guiding principles vis-à-vis Africa, it could not buy good behavior from the T.P.L.F. leaders. In fact, he himself, and the foreign-policy old-hands he had brought over from Clinton’s team--including Susan Rice--lauded the rigged election of Ethiopia as “absolutely democratic”[xxii] and continued the same trend and provided the same diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Ethiopian government.

Rhetorically at least, President Trump was up-front about his views on African leaders. His “America First” foreign policy signaled the U.S.’s disengaging from its obligations to Africa—among other areas. He even infamously referred to African nations as “shit-hole countries”. On the other hand, his unequivocal support for Egypt’s position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)--even encouraging Egypt to bomb the GERD[xxiii], and threatening Ethiopia with economic sanction unless it signed on a deal that would hurt its national interest--was a big shift in Ethiopian-American relations. Trump wanted to put pressure on Ethiopia and force it to accede to his demands by accepting his lopsided ruling on the dam, thus making Ethiopia the sacrificial lamb for fostering peace in the Middle East. But such unprecedented pressure, to force Ethiopia to compromise on its vital interests would not induce it to change course; rather, Ethiopia walked away from the U.S.-sponsored deal and has continued make efforts to reassure Egypt that equitable use of the Nile does not signify a reduction in the amount of Nile water available to it.

The Biden Administration brought over not only Clinton- and Obama-era officials and their playbooks, but his predecessors’ Cold-War posture as well. In its new Cold-War with China, Biden’s foreign-policy team has signaled that it has no problem with throwing America’s old ally, Ethiopia, under the bus, and restoring a widely reviled, minority government back to power, just like it did in 1991. To date, it has used all its financial and diplomatic assets and soft power, including the use of the United Nations Security Council, as well as much of the Western media, to strong-arm Ethiopia by giving aid and comfort to its adversaries. It remains to be seen if these strategies will work.

Who Formulates U.S. Foreign Policy?

Under the separation-of-powers doctrine of the U.S. Constitution, the conduct of foreign policy is primarily the purview of the President and Congress (Vestal 99). However, in the perception of the general public, it is the President who makes foreign policy decisions--and this perception is correct. Congress's broader power to hold hearings, conduct investigations and debate issues gives it the power to indirectly shape American foreign policy; in practical terms, however, it is the President who, ultimately, is responsible for conducting foreign policy on an ongoing basis. The key players in foreign-policy decisions are the President, and his National Security team, which consists primarily of the National Security Adviser, the Secretary of State, the Director of U.S. A.I.D., the Secretary of Defense, and the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. However, the National Security Adviser is the most important foreign policy aid to the President, and the staffs of the National Security Council have become regular fixtures in shaping foreign policy. Especially after September 11, 2001, Americans had signaled that they wanted their country to be more active in world affairs, and they have shown a greater willingness to endorse military actions, and even assassinations, and other antiterrorism measures. Consequently, Congress has become more active than ever in shaping foreign policy.

Few Americans fully realize the outsize influence the U.S. media have on foreign policy. Sometimes, the media act as the driving force behind foreign-policy decisions (“the CNN effect”).[xxiv] At other times, the media also look to the Whites House for cues on how to approach any new development.[xxv] On occasion, the media have also been known to act as enablers. [xxvi] In short, “a more complex relationship exists between the media and policymakers”[xxvii] than the average citizen realizes. Those hoping to have any success in getting heard would do well to heed the symbiotic relation between the media and the foreign-policy team referred to above, and observe how the two feed off each other.

The American establishment--consisting of leaders from the corporate and financial world, as well as faculty from elite universities—has always been a major force in defining key elements of American foreign policy, and it behooves one to be cognizant of this! In this respect, the world-view and personal proclivities of individual participants, as well as the roles and responsibilities these individuals are assigned within the decision-making process affect American foreign-policy in significant ways. Having said that, in theory, the Ethiopian-American, Yohannes Abraham, Chief of Staff and Executive Secretary of the White House National Security Council, could play a pivotal role in facilitating balanced, informed and fair policy decision on Ethiopia.

‘Groundhog Day,’ and Location, Location, Location

The Horn of Africa has been a battleground for big-power rivalries. The former U.S.S.R, Western Europe, and the U.S. scrambled to control this strategic region by supporting a government or its foes, and Ethiopia was always the top prize in the region.[xxviii] “For about four decades U.S. policy toward Africa was driven entirely by our competition with the Soviet Union.” [xxix] The two superpowers justified their interventions by stating: "I am able to intervene not only because I have a historical task but because you also are intervening; you are threatening the world order which I represent and which I know to be the true one".[xxx] These confrontations created a fertile environment for multiple military coups d’état, civil wars, and gross violations of human-rights. Neither the West, nor the East was interested in the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights, but only in a given government’s ideological orientation. The Horn of Africa is still a battleground for the big powers. Newcomers, like China, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, have operated in full gear to make the region the object of their confrontation. China’s economic influence and involvement in Ethiopia is huge; thus, the U.S. and China are locked in another cold-war. To curb the growing Chinese presence in Ethiopia, the U.S. has seen fit to pressure Ethiopia with whatever economic or other weapons it can lay its hands on, as it did in the 1980s. As a result, Ethiopia is in a state of de ja vu or, if you will, it is ‘groundhog day’ there. All this ultimately leads to massive displacement, civil wars, flagrant human-rights violations, genocide, and dictatorial rule, and the ongoing Ethiopian civil-war has given these superpowers an opportunity to intervene. That is why the U.S. is supporting the separatist group T.P.L.F., as it did 30 years ago. Human-rights organizations and the media are feeding false information to foster that U.S. policy--as they did during the Cold-War. What Ethiopia is facing is not only the “no free lunch”-paternalistic U.S. mindset, but also the collusion of the international media, the collaborators and the enablers of this policy.

What has to be done?

We see the respective deeds of both the Democrats and Republicans. They were both wrong from the get-go, wrong-footing themselves with shallow analyses of the reality in the Horn of Africa.Democratic and Republican policy-makers overlooked, excused, rationalized, and bankrolled wanton repression, injustice, corruption and economic mismanagement by unelected leaders during the T.P.L.F. era. It is true that the U.S. acts based on its national interest, and what the U.S. wants, is to cultivate and support a government that serves its best interest. This is by no means a sin, and it does not make the U.S. any different from other nations, especially super-powers, because politics, or international relations, are by no means sacrosanct endeavors. What the U.S. wants is to cultivate and support a government that serves its interests. Thus, Ethiopian-Americans need to understand how the government works, who makes foreign-policy decisions, how one goes about influencing elected officials, and why voting and elections matter.


Organizing and mobilizing interest in ethnic issues can affect foreign-policy debates at home and disrupt relations abroad. We have seen that with the success of well-known groups, like the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), and less known and new groups, like the Indian, Turkish, Chinese, Cuban, Greek, Mexican, Arab, and Armenian-Americans. “Successful Ethnic lobbyists like AIPAC relied on three ingredients to reach their goals, threatening to switch allegiances at election time, organizing a strong lobbying apparatus, and having the ability to build a case around traditional American values.”[xxxi] Ethiopian-Americans are not only newcomers but are also in the infancy stage of learning how to lobby. One area they have to continuously focus on is Congress, because, as noted above, it has become more active than ever in shaping foreign policy. There are hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian-Americans, who have made a difference in election after election in battleground states like Georgia, Virginia, Colorado, and so on. They need to get organized, learn the techniques of lobbying, look for, and create alliances with, other groups, including other African–American groups, or labor unions under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor-Confederation of International Organizations (AFL CIO), human-rights groups, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) and the Urban League, religious groups, think-tanks, and intensify their advocacy effort for a fair U.S. policy on Ethiopia. However, they need to understand that lobbying for Ethiopia does not mean lobbying for a regime. In lobbying, they should not put all their eggs in one basket, by, for instance, relying solely on one party or another, but being flexible.

Media Appearance

The U.S. media have had little expertise in the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia. They have been manipulated and used by separatist forces, liberal humanitarians and hard-line interventionists, who always push for military action in countries like Bosnia, Somalia and several other countries. These groups produce articles, conduct studies, and create news stories, forcing the Executive or Congress to pay attention. Many experts believe that the media provoked a sense of moral outrage among the American people and forced George H.W. Bush to act in Somalia. Therefore, Ethiopian-Americans need to quash false reports in real time, with hard facts; they need to write opinion pieces or editorials (op-eds), appear on U.S. media and correct any false or misleading news, as well as post on Facebook and Tweeter. They need to rebut T.P.L.F.’s false propaganda echoed by European and U.S. officials, human-rights organizations and the media.


There are between 250,000 to half a million Ethiopian-American voters spread across the various parts of the U.S. from North to South, from East to West. Thus, depending on density patterns in various locations, Ethiopian-Americans have the potential to make a huge difference in the outcomes of elections. For this potential to be realized fully, however, Ethiopian-Americans need to register to vote, vote, and get their voices heard. They also need to form coalitions with African-, Hispanic- and Asian-American voters and labor unions and create a voting bloc.


It would be stating the obvious to say that the Horn of Africa is a region where longstanding civil wars are still raging. Famine and other man-made problems are still stalking the lives of millions of people in the region. Multi-ethnic societies are living under the yoke of military or civil dictatorships. It is also a region which the superpowers and neighboring Arab states are competing with each other to control. The current Ethiopian civil-war, for instance, has given the U.S., the West, and other actors in the region another opportunity to meddle in Ethiopian affairs.

In my view, the cause of the civil-war is the Ethiopian Constitution’s and the focus on ethnic politics. It’s like living in a building in which there has been a deliberately started gas leak which has been going on for a long time. In specific terms, the gas has been leaking since the enactment of the constitution in 1995. What T.P.L.F. did in November 2020, when it carried out an unprovoked attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), was light a match. If Ethiopia wants to extinguish this fire, it must amend, change or replace the Ethiopian constitution which continues to leak gas. The civil war needs to end, and the constitution needs to be amended thoroughly.

Ethiopia needs to strengthen itself. It also needs to get its act together, provide good governance for its people, alleviate poverty and famine, and liberate itself, at least, from dependency on food aid. It also needs to work on improving its human-rights record, instead of complaining about the views of the U.S. and the West’s accusations about its human-rights practices. Ethiopia is a poor country with a lot of potential, and it needs to reconsider its foreign policy: It should be pragmatic and neutral, a part of the ‘Non-aligned Nations’ as it used to be throughout the 1970’s.

For its part, the U.S. should scrap any plan it might have to make the Horn of Africa the battleground of the new Cold-War with China and Russia. It should abandon such a mentality and devise a new, pragmatic and progressive foreign policy. Given the fall of Kabul and the reemergence of terrorist groups, the U.S. policymakers should be careful not to Balkanize Ethiopia for its deeds or misdeeds. I say this because U.S. politicians still think of Africa as a kind of political “vending machine,” into which one inserts coins, to receive an alliance against China. The T.P.L.F. government was that coin; it was a ‘Trojan horse’ to control the Horn of Africa. That currency is worthless now. It is true that our aid is mostly given to serve political and security purposes. A united Ethiopia has been a good and trusted partner toward that end. What the West fails to understand is that economic sanctions might scare and weaken the government, but not the people. Ethiopians are used to living austere lives. Seasoned diplomats recognize that effective coercive influence is a rare commodity in foreign policy. The U.S. needs to apply a carrots and sticks policy vis-à-vis the Ethiopian government that does not risk dismembering Ethiopia. Any effort to Balkanize Ethiopia will not serve the best interests of the U.S. A destabilized Ethiopia will spill over to the Horn of Africa and make the region a safe haven for terrorists. It should not be a cancer eating away at American foreign policy, as Bosnia did.


[i], visited September 12, 2021. [ii]; Visited September 12, 2021. [iii],visited September 12, 2021. [iv]Theodore Vestal, The Lion of Judah in the New World, p. 33, 2011. [v] Bill Berkeley, the Graves are not Yet Full, Race, Tribe and power in the Heart of Africa, p. 78, 2001. [vi] Ibid, P. 81. [vii]Steven Ambrose and Douglas Brinkely, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, Penguin Books, page 82. 1971, [viii] Theodore M. Vestal, The Lion of Judah at Camelot: U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Ethiopia as Reflected in the Second State Visit of Emperor Haile Selassie to the United States, International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1/2 (Spring/Fall 2009), pp. 135-152 (18 pages). [ix] Robert K D. Kaplan, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, And Eritrea, 2003, P. 169. [x]Robert K D. Kaplan, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, And Eritrea1988, p. 174. 2003, [xi]Ibid, note 2, supra p. 172. [xii]Ibid, supra, note 2, p. 170. [xiii]Ibid, supra, note 2, p. 171. [xiv]Ibid., [xv] Bill Berkeley, The Graves are Not Full, , p. 81, , 2001. [xvi]Paraphrased statement of Carl Brown, the former head of U.S. Information Agency. See also, visited December 14, 2020; -aid-anticommunist-rebels-reagan-doctrine-its-pitfalls, visited December 14, 2020., visited December 15, 2020. [xvii]Supra, note 2, p. 175. [xviii] [xix] Supra, note 2, p. 175. [xx] [xxi]Franz Essig, “President Obama’s New Strategy on Sub-Saharan African Development”, Council for a Community of Democracies, June 22, 2012, at [xxii] [xxiii] [xxiv]Glen P. Hastedt, American Foreign Policy, p. 131-134, 2011, [xxv]Ibid. [xxvi]Ibid, supra note 18, p. 135. [xxvii]Ibid. [xxviii]Ibid, supra note 4, p. 167 [xxix]Supra, note 2, p. 78. [xxx]Hedley Bull, Ed., Intervention in World Politics, Oxford University Press, 1988. [xxxi]“Martin Weil, “Can the blacks do for Africa what the Jews did for Israel. Foreign policy, 15, (1974); 109-29.

The article represents the author’s viewpoint. You can contact the author through the Horn of Africa Insight at

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