Problematic Ally : The moral hazards of dealing with Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi

Washington Post Editorial / JuLy 21, 2007

MORE THAN once during the Cold War, the united states aligned itself with dictatorial or corrupt, but anticommunist, foreign governments, compromising democratic principles for perceived advantage against the Soviet Union. These choices were not necessarily wrong, but each one put the U.S. on a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lay a completely amoral foreign policy.

The Bush administration's global war on terrorism faces similar moral hazards. Even as President Bush correctly declares that ultimate victory against al-Qaeda hinges on the spread of freedom, he sometimes makes common cause with authoritarian regimes that promise to help eliminate terrorists in the here and now. Examples: Egypt, Pakistan and, more recently, Ethiopia, whose authoritarian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was once a darling of the Clinton administration and has also forged close ties to the Bush administration. With Washington's blessing, Mr. Meles sent troops to Somalia in December to expel the radical Islamic Courts movement linked to al-Qaeda.

Yesterday 38 opposition politicians and activists walked out of jail in Addis Ababa, where they had been held for almost two years. That is good news, but they never should have been there in the first place. After Mr. Meles's party tried to deny its opponents the share of Parliament they won in an election in May 2005, protests erupted across the country, only to be crushed by Mr. Meles's security forces at a cost of 193 civilian lives. (Six police officers also died.) Thousands of people were detained, including the opposition leaders 35 of whom were sentenced to life in prison on preposterous charges of treason and inciting violence. Their release came after they signed a letter taking "full responsibility for the mistakes committed both individually and collectively" and begging for a pardon, which a regime-controlled board granted. Immediately after his release, opposition leader Hailu Shawel said he had signed the Orwellian statement under duress. But the fact that he and other leaders of civil society were released without restrictions on their political activity is a hopeful sign.

More political prisoners remain. Mr. Meles's troops also stand accused of human rights abuses in Somalia and in the country's internal war against rebels in the Ogaden region. The Bush administration has remained mostly quiet about all of this, though the State Department played a back-channel role helping to arrange the prisoners' release. The most visible U.S. pressure came in the form of a bill, sponsored by Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), which would link U.S. aid to Ethiopia's performance on human rights. It passed the House's Africa subcommittee, chaired by Mr. Payne, this week. Ethiopia is a strategic ally. But it will probably take more work by its hard-pressed civil society, and more pressure from the United States, before it can be called a democratic one.

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