Sudan, Ethiopia, and the American Empire
Print Friendly and PDF

By Joseph E. Fallon

Chronicles Magazine

March 2008

Sudan and Ethiopia are neighboring countries that are both ruled by authoritarian regimes; each is engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency operation against rebel forces—the former, in Darfur; the latter, in Ogaden. Curiously, these countries are treated quite differently by Washington; and this difference reveals a great deal about the current modus operandi of the American Empire.

In Darfur, war erupted in 2003. The rebels initially consisted of two groups: the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), originally called the Darfur Liberation Front, supported by Eritrea; and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), thought to be receiving aid from Chad as well as Eritrea. Each rebel group has since split into several factions. The result is a kaleidoscopic war pitting Muslim against Muslim, Arab against African, black against black, ethnic group against ethnic group, tribe against tribe, and agriculturalist against nomad. An estimated 200,000 people have died, while another two million have been made refugees.

The response of the U.S. government has been to accuse Sudan of "genocide" in Darfur, to support a U.N. resolution calling Sudan's actions there "crimes against humanity," to demand that Khartoum agree to the deployment of a foreign peacekeeping force of up to 26,000 troops in Darfur and allow the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations unfettered access to the region, and to expand U.S. sanctions on Sudan.

In June 2007, Ethiopia launched a war in Ogaden against ethnic Somali rebels who call themselves the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and are also backed by Eritrea. Many have described the situation in Ethiopia as similar to what is occurring in Darfur. While a U.N. team was permitted by Addis Ababa to visit Ogaden to investigate charges of Ethiopian atrocities, its findings were never released. In the meantime, human-rights groups, the Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontieres, and independent journalists have been barred or expelled from the region.

Washington's response has been to support Ethiopia, dismissing stories of atrocities by government troops as rebel propaganda. The Bush administration continues to support the Addis Ababa regime. The White House has not withdrawn one penny of its yearly gift of approximately half a billion dollars in foreign aid and continues to arm and train its military, the largest in Africa; and the Bush administration has declared Ethiopia eligible for the Excess Defense Articles program, which provides the regime with used American weapons and equipment free or at reduced prices.

Why the official outrage over Darfur, but not over Ogaden? There are three reasons: Islam, oil, and China.

Empires have often been established by governments in response to a perceived threat to a country's security. The threat, real or imagined, is used to justify increased military spending, the establishment of overseas bases, and foreign interventions (political or military, directly or by proxy). If a threat can be depicted as a totalitarian ideology with millions of supporters, such policies can be implemented quickly and with little domestic opposition. The right to security becomes a right to control as many states or regions and their natural resources as possible. The Cold War is one example. Since September 11, the Bush administration has been seeking to emulate that example, claiming it is fighting a world war against "Islamic fundamentalism." Islam has replaced the Soviet Bloc as the existential threat to America.

The goal of this "War on Terror," publicly acknowledged by neoconservative supporters of the Bush administration, is to ensure that the United States remains the world's hegemonic power for the 21st century. Maintaining this empire can only succeed if Washington accomplishes three tasks.

First, and most important, it must control the oil and gas resources of the Middle East and Central Asia—the source as well as the existing and planned distribution pipelines, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, South Caucasus, Trans-Caspian Gas, and Trans-Afghanistan pipelines. This will enable Washington to exert political pressure on rivals and hesitant allies whose economies are dependent on this oil and gas—China, Europe, India, and Japan. At the same time, the United States will be able to undermine Russia's economy and her international influence by reducing Moscow's share of the Eurasian petroleum-export market. This is the strategy advocated in 1997 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor. Though Brzezinski opposed the neocons, this policy, outlined in his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, helped to formulate their current strategy.

Second, to exploit these resources efficiently, the United States must orchestrate "regime change"—i.e., install pro-American regimes—in Muslim countries. According to Gen. Wesley Clark in his book Winning Modern Wars, in addition to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, the Bush administration is targeting Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan for such regime change.

Third, regime change is a euphemism for the imperial dictum "divide and rule." For neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, and Max Boot, regime change means fragmenting Muslim countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, into two or more separate states. Its most outspoken advocate, Ralph Peters, calls for redrawing the borders of virtually every Muslim country in the Middle East. The ethnic and racial balkanization of Islam, at least on a limited scale, appears to be part of the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda.

The politics of oil, regime change, and balkanization is the template applied by the Bush administration to Sudan. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the most important one in the Sahel, a band of countries stretching across the width of the continent located south of the Arabs and north of Nigeria. Sudan is also the tenth-largest country in the world, covering an area roughly the size of Western Europe and with a fraction of the population. Strategically located south of Egypt and west of Saudi Arabia, she borders Libya, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Red Sea. She controls a vast stretch of the Nile, but, most importantly, Sudan has oil, discovered in the south of the country by Chevron in the 1970's.

In the Cold War, the United States and Israel supported southern Sudanese secessionists—first, the Anya-Nya; then, the Sudan People's Liberation Army—in hopes of overthrowing an African government considered an enemy of Israel and a friend of the Soviet Union. However, the U.N. military suppression of the attempt by Katanga to secede from the Congo dissuaded Washington from seeking to partition the Sudan—at that time. Regime change was sufficient.

With American and Israeli backing, southerners, who are culturally, linguistically, and religiously different from people in the Arabized North, fought two civil wars against the government of Sudan to secure independence. The first lasted from 1955 to 1972 and ended with the Addis Ababa peace agreement. Under its terms, the south was granted a large degree of political and cultural autonomy within a united Sudan.

The peace ended in 1983 when Khartoum attempted to undermine the political autonomy of the south and then sought to impose sharia (Islamic law) on southerners. A second civil war ensued, which lasted until 2005. It is estimated that, between 1955 and 2005, nearly two million south Sudanese died, and another four million were made refugees.

When the second civil war broke out, Washington again aided the secessionists. There were four phases to this policy, which reflected the motivations of four presidents. Ronald Reagan continued the traditional Cold War U.S. foreign policy. George H.W. Bush sought to punish Khartoum for refusing to support his Gulf War. Bill Clinton wanted to curb Khartoum's sponsorship of terrorism. President George W. Bush is attempting to demonstrate to the Islamic militants what Washington can do to any Muslim state that meets with its disapproval: impose economic sanctions and political partition.

If her southern petroleum reserves are sufficiently developed, Sudan could become a major oil-producing country. The principal beneficiary, however, would be China, thanks to Executive Order 13067. In 1997, claiming Khartoum was harboring Islamic terrorists, persecuting Christians, and destabilizing neighboring states, the Clinton administration imposed a trade embargo on Sudan. U.S. businesses were prohibited from investing in Sudan's oil industry. This disengagement resulted in the emergence of China as Sudan's principal foreign investor. China now operates major oil concessions in the country.

If southern Sudan were to become an independent state, it would be the major oil-producing country in that region. And it would be non-Muslim and pro-American.

This would be a major "victory" for the Bush administration's War on Terror. The U.S. government would have stripped the largest Arab state, and one of the largest Muslim countries in Africa, of more than one third of her territory and most of her petroleum reserves.

In January 2005, the Bush administration engineered a peace agreement between the war-weary adversaries, which established the necessary framework. Under its terms, Washington achieves three short-term objectives: a north-south partition of Sudan after six years; the resumption of U.S. oil operations in the country, which will likely lead to a U.S. monopolization of southern Sudan's oil reserves; and the subsequent displacement of China from Sudan's oil industry, ensuring that Beijing's economy and military remain dependent on foreign oil companies—particularly those of the United States and her allies.

The long-term goal appears to be a further fragmentation of Sudan. This would serve as both a demonstration of Washington's power and a preview of what Iran—and Pakistan, should Islamic radicals take over in the wake of Bhutto's assassination—can expect. The crisis in Darfur provides the Bush administration with a pretext, allowing Washington to exploit ethnic, tribal, and racial conflicts among Muslims to precipitate the breakup of a Muslim state. Moreover, if Khartoum agrees to the stationing of 26,000 foreign troops in Darfur, the region effectively becomes an independent state. After that, the same scenario would likely be repeated in Kordofan, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, the Red Sea, and the Kassala provinces—all of which have grievances against the central government. If Khartoum refuses, rebels will receive enough arms and aid to reduce Sudan to the level of Somalia, with a de facto partition of the country among rival warlords.

Meanwhile, Christian Ethiopia, a traditional U.S. ally, has been elevated by Washington to the rank of a sub-imperial power. During the Cold War, Addis Ababa backed the U.S.-supported southern Sudanese secessionists but did not militarily intervene on their behalf. Such restraint was abandoned at the close of 2006, when Ethiopia, with Washington's approval, invaded and occupied Somalia, yet another Muslim country the Bush administration deems an enemy of the United States. Ethiopia now serves as a U.S. proxy army in the Horn of Africa. In return, Washington will preserve Ethiopia's status as the dominant military power in East Africa.

The occupation of Somalia has provoked Muslim insurgencies inside that country and in Ethiopia's adjacent Somali-inhabited Ogaden. These uprisings have frustrated the U.S. goal of suppressing Islamic militants among Somalis and imposing a compliant, pro-American regime upon Somalia. Both Addis Ababa and the Bush administration accuse Eritrea of being behind these rebellions, providing rebels with arms, funds, training, and sanctuary. Ethiopia has now deployed 100,000 troops to the Eritrean border and is likely to attack that country by the end of the year. Her pretext will be a border dispute. (International arbitrators ruled in favor of Eritrea, but Ethiopia refuses to accept their verdict.) Behind this is the greater goal of implementing the Bush administration's agenda of overthrowing the Eritrean government.

The Ethiopian military is already fighting at least three wars: a foreign war in Somalia, and two major domestic insurgencies—one against Somalis in Ogaden, and another against the Oromo, who are the largest ethnic group in the country and occupy nearly a third of its territory. A fourth war may very well be the breaking point for the overextended Ethiopian army, causing either a military defeat (and demoralization) or intense frustration from fighting a protracted guerrilla war. Without a loyal army, the pro-American regime in Addis Ababa will fall.

This illustrates the dysfunction of the American Empire. It promotes instability in select Muslim countries such as Sudan, claiming this will enhance the security of the United States. The opposite is true: Chessboard foreign policy only increases anti-Americanism and support for Islamic militants among Muslims worldwide, as numerous opinion polls throughout the Muslim world confirm. The U.S. government rewards Third World regimes, such as Ethiopia's, that participate in its War on Terror. Washington's embrace can be fatal, however. Such alliances often alienate significant portions of the populations in those countries, which, in turn, undermines the stability of pro-American regimes that rule them. Yet the Bush administration continues to pursue this self-defeating policy. Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different outcome, is a mark of insanity.



Joseph E. Fallon writes from Rye, New York.

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Print Friendly and PDF