To Hold Back Iran, Cooperate with Eritrea
By Dana Rohrabacher
August 31, 2017
President Trump understands the danger posed by Iran and the necessity of confronting that mullah-controlled Islamic country. He has cited the nefarious role played by the Houthis—a Shiite terrorist group operating in Yemen that is a major proxy of Tehran. The Houthis constitute a major threat to the Arabian Peninsula and the entire Red Sea region.
As such, they greatly concern Egypt and Israel. Both countries, of course, are key U.S. allies.
A coalition of Saudi Arabia and moderate Gulf states is fighting a protracted, intensive war against the Houthis. They hold a major frontline in the battle against Islamist terrorism.
A key partner in this coalition is Eritrea, a country with a long track record of fighting terrorism, but which has been shunned by the United States for more than a decade. Eritrea has provided the coalition with its territory along the Red Sea, and its facilities, including the crucial port of Assab.
Multiple operations have been launched from Eritrean soil. Eritrean troops reportedly are involved in military operations inside Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have indicated they welcome and value Eritrea’s participation. Egypt and Eritrea have greatly strengthened their already close ties in recent months, and Israel has cooperated with Eritrea for years.
Over most of Eritrea’s history, America’s posture toward the country has been puzzling and self-defeating. Cold War strategies may explain why the United States did not support the Eritrean thirty-year independence struggle, which began in the early 1960s.
In 1998, the two countries—not only neighbors, but ethnic relatives—fought a bloody and senseless war, ostensibly over border and currency issues. More than one hundred thousand were killed.
Although there are no current hostilities, the border is still not demarcated (Ethiopia refused to accept the rulings of a commission whose rulings both sides had agreed would be “final and binding”), and there is a continued tense standoff between the two armies.
Throughout all this the United States has pragmatically favored Ethiopia (population one hundred million) over Eritrea (population 4.5 million). John Bolton complained in his memoirs that when he was UN ambassador, he wanted to implement international law and require Ethiopia to abide by the decision by the Ethiopian-Eritrean border commission. To his astonishment, the State Department blocked his well-intentioned attempt.
Still, the sanctions on Eritrea remain in place. Only the United States, during the Obama administration, supported maintaining the sanctions.
In addition to the Somalia issue, Eritrea faces a host of significant human-rights concerns. Its government should certainly be encouraged to enact reforms allowing freedom of the press, democracy and other universally recognized rights. It is inarguably an authoritarian state. It may be easier to achieve progress through constructive engagement rather than hostile isolation.
These are significant achievements and would be the envy of most, if not all, African countries. These factors should be looked at as well when assessing human rights. Yet, to Eritrea’s harsh critics, none of this matters.
What is necessary now is for the Trump administration to implement its own logical policy, by overcoming the bureaucratic inertia and debris of the previous, failed Obama policy, and actively engaging with Eritrea. To quote again from President Trump’s remarks in Riyadh: “We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.”
Fortunately, the tide of opinion in policy circles is finally turning. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen not long ago urged that Eritrea be brought in from the cold, starting a much-needed debate and discussion, and the Atlantic Council has called for the same. The policy of isolating Eritrea has been a disaster; sanctions are unjustified and should be lifted; and a serious strategic dialogue should begin with Eritrea.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, represents California’s forty-eighth district.
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