Ethiopia: The Art of War by Mass Distraction
At the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man, told his interrogator:
Naturally the common people don’t want war. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… Voice or no voice [democratic or non-democratic government], the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
Lately, Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia, has been beating the drums of war. He charged:
Recently, Eritrea is training and deploying Al Shabab and locally grown destructive forces to terrorize our country. But Egypt is the direct force behind these destructive elements that back them. Until now, our strategy has been defending our sovereignty by speeding up our development. Now, we found that we could not go any longer with passive defense. It’s not possible to take passive defense as the only alternative. Therefore, we have to facilitate ways for Eritrean people to remove their dictatorial regime. We have no intention to jump into their country but we need to extend our influence there. If the Eritrean government tries to attack us, we will also respond proportionally.
In December 2006, Zenawi used the exact same logique de guerre (war logic) at the onset of his unsuccessful 843-day war to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union and crush the Al Shabab in Somalia. He said:
With regard to physical attacks or physical acts of the invasion, what has happened since last summer is that the Islamic courts have been training, equipping and smuggling armed opposition elements into Ethiopia. These elements have been engaged in activities of destabilization in Ethiopia. Hundreds of these have been smuggled and they have been involved in clashes with security forces in Ethiopia. To the extent that the Islamic Courts have trained them, equipped them, given them shelter and transported them to the border for smuggling. To that extent, they are directly involved in an act of aggression on Ethiopia. And that has been going since summer. It is still continuing.
Zenawi asserted the legal doctrine of pre-emptive self-defense (the right to use force in anticipation of an attack, Art. 51, U.N. Charter) to clothe his naked aggression against Somalia:
Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation. We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia’s internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances.
In 2009, a humbled Zenawi waxed philosophical and struck a grudgingly conciliatory tone as he ordered his defeated troops out of Somalia:
If the people of Somalia have a government, even one not positively inclined to Ethiopia, it would be better than the current situation. Having a stable government in place in Somalia is in our national interests.
Zenawi now bangs the drums of war and says there will no longer be “passive defense” against the “dictatorial regime” in Eritrea and its Egyptian “puppet masters” who are working in collusion to “destabilize” and “terrorize” Ethiopia.
Since “stability” is the hallmark of Pax Zenawi, one could reasonably ask whether “a stable government in place in Eritrea is in our national interest”. The undeniable fact is that Zenawi invaded Somalia to pander to the Bush Administration’s reflexive obsession with terrorism and to deflect criticism for his theft of the 2005 election and the post-election massacre of innocent demonstrators and mass imprisonment of opposition leaders. Zenawi’s three-year occupation of Somalia created more instability in that country, and the so-called transitional government remains weaker than ever. The very elements Zenawi sought to vanquish in Somalia, including Al Shabab, are today stronger than ever. Somali pirates have become a maritime scourge on the Indian Ocean. Somalia is considerably worse off today than it was before Zenawi’s invasion in 2006. That invasion created the worst global humanitarian crisis in the first decade of the Twenty-First Century. In the end, Zenawi did not save the Horn from Al Shabab, Al Queida, the Islamic Courts or whatever phantom enemies he was chasing after over there. If Zenawi could not dislodge a ragtag army of “terrorists” from Somalia after three years of an all-out war, it is illogical to expect a different result against a well-entrenched “dictatorial regime” in Eritrea.
The fact to keep in mind is that Zenawi today is recycling the exact same slick set of arguments he used to justify his invasion of Somalia. But hidden deep in his casus belli (justification for war) against the “dictatorial regime” in Eritrea and Egypt are a complex set of geopolitical and domestic issues. At the geopolitical level, Zenawi is floating a trial baloon to see if the Americans will fall for a second-coming of the Savior of the Horn from the plague of global terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, regional instability and the rest of it. The U.S. will not fall for that old boogey-man-in-the-Horn trick, again. Obama is neither shopping for war in the Horn nor is he willing to bankroll one. So, there will be no war for regime change in Eritrea or a water war with Egypt.
Patriotism, the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel
So, what is the real reason for all the talk about regime change in Eritrea and a looming water war with Egypt? It is all political theater, part of a three-ring propaganda circus intended to distract the Ethiopian population and Diaspora critics from talking about the winds of change that will surely blow southward from North Africa. All the talk of war and regime change is bravado intended to cover something that is deeply troubling Zenawi and his ruling class. It is part of a strategy intended to project invincibility and outward confidence that Zenawi still runs the show in Ethiopia and the upheavals taking place in North Africa will not occur under his watch. But all of the pretentious war talk betrays Zenawi’s obvious preoccupation with loss of control and power as a result of a spontaneous popular uprising. Careful analysis of his public statements reveal the deep anxieties and profound political angst of a delusionally isolated man trapped in a siege mentality.
There is substantial psychological literature which suggests that dictators often resort to bombast and self-glorification to cover up their paranoid obsessions. For instance, dictators who are morbidly fearful of losing power will project that fear on their opponents as a way of reducing their own anxiety. More to the point, a dictator fearful of regime change will threaten others with regime change just to deal with his own anxieties. The wind-bagging about war is intended to conceal Zenawi’s vulnerabilities from public view and enable him to suppress the psychological discomfort of consciously admitting that he could realistically become a victim of regime change in a popular uprising. Metaphorically speaking, the constant fear and nightmare of dictators who ride the back of the proverbial tiger is what the tiger will do to them if they stop riding it. As President Kennedy observed, “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Ending up inside the tiger’s belly is what keeps dictators from sleeping at night and war talk during the day. Suffice it to say that the winds of change blowing over the Horn from North Africa must be spreading sheer panic about a lurking hungry and angry tiger in the land of “thirteen months of sunshine”!
Professor Jerrold Post’s research in leadership trait analysis is particularly instructive in understanding the techniques dictators use to project false confidence, conceal their anxieties about losing power and delusionally reassure themselves that they are omnipotent, invincible and untouchable. Typically, they begin by making grandiose public statements about war and enemies hoping to boost popular support. They magically discover love of country and wrap themselves in the flag and become jingoistic (super-patriotic). They even become revanchist (propose to reverse territorial losses incurred by their country) in an attempt to open the floodgates of popular patriotic emotion. They brazenly pander to the population using nationalistic and chauvinistic sensationalism and try to mobilize public support with cheap sentimentality by manufacturing hysteria about imminent attacks, invisible enemies, lurking terrorists, loss of sovereignty and the rest of it. Every chance they get, they try to trigger paroxysms of public anger against the enemy and inflame public opinion with provocative and outrageously concocted stories designed to make themselves look patriotic and all others unpatriotic. When all else fails, they openly incite fear and hysteria to distract public attention from their crimes and dictatorial rule.
By “facilitating ways for Eritrean people to remove their dictatorial regime”, Zenawi hopes to lay a credible groundwork for a just, moral and humanitarian intervention in Eritrea. But he is only pandering to the Eritrean people by promising to free them from a “dictatorship” just as he pledged the Somali people four years ago liberation from the clutches of Al Shabab and Al Qaeda terrorists and the Islamic Courts Union. By proposing “to extend our influence there”, he is pandering to revanchist elements in Ethiopia who still chafe at the secession of Eritrea and generate war hysteria to punish a “historic” enemy.
There is nothing new in this war propaganda game. From the time of the Roman emperors to the present day, the lords of war have played the “war card” and stirred up patriotic fever in the population to cling to power. Over the millennia, the technology of war may have changed but the deceit, ploys, chicanery, treachery and modus operandi of war-makers has remained the same. Dictators, like schoolyard bullies, are experts in the art of taunting, intimidation, bluffing and teasing. They start a war of words and flood their population with lies, fabrications and half-truths. More often than not, the war of words will not amount to much more than declarations of bravado and hyperbolic accusations and recriminations.
Time will show if there will be war or intervention in Eritrea, and a water war with Egypt. We will monitor the rumors of war over the coming weeks and months. We shall listen to the oratory of war and why it is necessary for two of the poorest countries on the planet to slaughter each other twice in less than fifteen years. Isn’t the 100,000 deaths of the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war enough? We shall read the dramatic propaganda narratives to be written to create war fever and observe the war hysteria that will be drummed up to bring more misery and suffering to the unfortunate people of the Horn of Africa. We will watch out for the sparks of war, the fabricated lures and lies that will be used as bait for an attack and intervention. If there is war, we shall see the masses of poor people marching to war they do not want. But for now, no one needs to lose sleep over that prospect. The only war being waged today by Zenawi is a war of mass distraction.
It is the scholarly duty of historians, political scientists, journalists, lawyers and others to throw light on repeated historical patterns of war deception to enhance public understanding, and to debunk and unravel the tangled webs of lies and deceit of the war-makers. Herr Goering said, “Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.” Herr Goering is wrong. The people of North Africa are refusing the “bidding of their leaders.” Is it unreasonable to suppose that the people of the Horn of Africa will also refuse the “bidding of their leaders” to become cannon fodder for their dictators?
The common people of Ethiopia do not want war. If there is war, it will be Zenawi’s War. Zenawi has done one “fantastic Somalia job“ . Another fantastic job in Eritrea is not needed. In any case, there needs to be some serious accounting for the war in Somalia in 2006 and the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and that arbitration matter before starting a new war in 2011.
The holier-than-thou dictators ought to remind themselves that “The camel cannot see the crookedness of its own neck”. Before they go all out to remove other regimes, they should contemplate the simple wisdom of Scriptures: “You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” In less sublime terms, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones”.
On the other hand, is it possible that when two elephants fight, the grass could come out as the real winner?
By Alemayehu G. Mariam