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In Ethiopia and Sudan, U.S. Policy Needs Less Talk and More Teeth

The Biden administration’s tough rhetoric is not enough to avoid a disastrous outcome in the Horn of Africa.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council.
Sudanese youths protest in the streets of the capital Khartoum on Nov. 4.
Sudanese youths protest in the streets of the capital Khartoum on Nov. 4. AFP via Getty Images

In his first weeks in office, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” as part of an overall strategy to advance an agenda focused on human rights and democracy, where Americans would stand “shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”

But nearly one year into his administration, it has become clear that all carrot and no stick is not sufficient when hoping to dissuade forces seeking to maintain their grip on power.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in the Horn of Africa, where rulers are proving more responsive to the gun than to the street. In such an environment, to be feared is to be respected.

In his first weeks in office, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” as part of an overall strategy to advance an agenda focused on human rights and democracy, where Americans would stand “shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”

But nearly one year into his administration, it has become clear that all carrot and no stick is not sufficient when hoping to dissuade forces seeking to maintain their grip on power.

Nowhere has this been clearer than in the Horn of Africa, where rulers are proving more responsive to the gun than to the street. In such an environment, to be feared is to be respected.

But in a year of sustained high-level diplomacy to support a democratic transition in Sudan and to avoid a civil war in neighboring Ethiopia, U.S. rhetoric has not inspired enough fear or respect from those countries’ respective leaders to avoid a potentially catastrophic outcome for U.S. interests in the region.

Biden’s message has been delivered by the first special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, but he has done little to achieve these objectives. Now, the risk of collapse in this strategically vital region, occupying more than 1,000 miles of Red Sea coastline, could not be greater and the consequences more dire.

Before Biden even took office, his foreign-policy team had staked out a hard line in Ethiopia, and it has since been firm in calling for a cease-fire, accountability, and broad-based political dialogue in the government’s increasingly brutal campaign against Tigrayan rebels. And while the administration has been remarkably consistent in its messaging, it’s done surprisingly little to add teeth to its demands, despite growing concerns of state-sponsored famine and even genocide. Nor has it succeeded in forcing the full withdrawal of neighboring Eritrea from the Tigray region or deterring the Tigrayan army from expanding its counterassault into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.

U.S. rhetoric has not inspired enough fear or respect from key countries’ leaders to avoid a potentially catastrophic outcome for U.S. interests in the region.

As Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces now seek to push south toward the capital and international diplomats prepare to evacuate the city, Washington’s diplomacy is failing to make an impact.

Visa restrictions on unnamed Ethiopian and Eritrean officials and the suspension of bilateral development assistance, begun under the Trump administration, are the only real punitive measures that have been imposed after a full year of war. A wide-ranging sanctions program, threatened since April, was rolled out in September but surprisingly did not actually sanction officials or entities as promised, suggesting the mere threat of sanctions is perhaps more impactful than their imposition. And the more recent announcement, brought about by a congressionally imposed deadline, that Ethiopia would lose over $200 million in U.S. trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act does not take effect until January.

As the United States continues to hold out misplaced hope that its diplomacy alone will work, the parties to the conflict have continued to use that time to press their fight beyond the point where Washington’s words will be able to draw them back, raising the specter of an even wider regional conflagration. With Egypt anxious for a conclusion to negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Sudan’s military seeking to retake large portions of its disputed border with Ethiopia, continued deterioration in Ethiopia is in no one’s interest.

In Sudan, which once held out the promise of undertaking a successful democratic transition, U.S. diplomacy has been focused on incentivizing the right kinds of behavior; more than $1 billion has been promised so far in support of debt relief, investment guarantees, governance reform, and direct financial support. However, no serious effort has ever been made to protect these investments by preparing policies to weaken those elements of the still-ruling military council who from the start have barely hidden their disdain for the notion of civilian rule.

That massive U.S. investment was thrown into doubt on Oct. 25 when Sudan’s military suspended the transitional constitution, arrested the U.S.-backed civilian prime minister, and began a campaign of mass arrests, torture, and killing of the political opposition and pro-democracy street protesters. With international assistance now suspended and the United States calling for a return to the pre-coup political status quo, Sudan’s military head of state has declared that he won’t back down and is instead preparing to install his own compliant government. And though Washington succeeded in coaxing a strong consensus from the United Nations Security Council to “restore the civilian-led transitional government,” fears remain that outside actors are all likely working behind the scenes to undermine that consensus and encourage the military’s hard line.

Here again, Washington has the tools needed to bolster its diplomacy but has refused to use them. Targeted human rights sanctions against the military and its corporations; designations of the Rapid Support Forces and military intelligence, the principal perpetrators of abuses around the coup, as foreign terrorist organizations; and better use of sanctions structures still on the books from Sudan’s previous 1989 coup and the Darfur conflict would add muscle to U.S. diplomacy and would be understood beyond Khartoum in places like Cairo and Moscow, which are extending a lifeline to the military through their ongoing political and military support. Even calling the events of last month a “coup”—something State Department statements have assiduously avoided—would begin to push back against the military’s incomprehensible narrative that it acted to save the transition.

As the crises in Sudan and Ethiopia begin to spiral out of control, U.S. officials must acknowledge where diplomacy has come up short and apply pressure.

But as Sudan’s pro-democracy activists are now arrested simply for meeting with U.N. envoys, the lack of U.S. punitive measures against the coup leaders has only weakened the strength of U.S. diplomacy and has put at real risk the pro-democracy allies Washington said it would stand shoulder to shoulder with.

As the crises in Sudan and Ethiopia begin to spiral out of control, U.S. officials must acknowledge where diplomacy has come up short and apply pressure to not only influence but also actively shape the peaceful and democratic outcomes the Biden administration has been calling for. Imposing a regional arms embargo, suspending debt financing, and issuing targeted sanctions on government-owned entities and military leaders in both countries would be an overdue start. So would offering more direct support to democracy activists and peacemakers on the ground who are struggling to have their voices heard among internet blackouts and government misinformation.

As they do so, U.S. policymakers would also do well to heed the call of one of Sudan’s beleaguered politicians whose pleas for tangible assistance have thus far gone unanswered:

“This pressure has to be more than just tweets. This pressure needs to have mechanisms that could create real pressure on the military.”

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council. Twitter: @_hudsonc

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