Washington, the only power that enjoys any effective leverage over Prime Minister Zenawi, appears to believe that in bolstering Ethiopia, it is backing a force for stability, a diplomatic approach that dates back to Emperor Haile Selassie's era. The opposite is probably true, because the unsettled border issue has acted as a festering sore, infecting the entire region.
Stalemated on the border issue, the two leaders have continued to wage a proxy war in alternative venues, each supporting rebel movements committed to their rival's downfall. Somalia has been the first major casualty of this cynical game: Eritrea's arming of the Islamic Courts Union was regarded as intolerable provocation by Addis, which sent its tanks rolling in.
Having boasted last December that it could pacify Somalia within two weeks, Ethiopia is now confronting the same hearts-and-minds problem as U.S. troops in Baghdad. The hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees streaming out of Mogadishu, like the villagers emerging from the Ogaden region with tales of Ethiopian rape and plunder, will provide future Islamist movements with easy recruits.
But the reverberations of the EEBC debacle spread much further. Why, in the future, should any well-connected African state ever agree to obey an international ruling that finds in favor of a smaller, weaker rival?
Washington appears to have learned nothing from the past, when the decision to embrace unsavory African strongmen purely on the basis of their anti-Communist credentials proved the most short-sighted of investments. Now, just as then, such supposed pragmatism is proving counterproductive, turning an already unstable region into a war-torn, refugee-plagued, famine-afflicted recruiting ground for extremism.