Outside editorial: Bad Company

Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That was the Cold War creed. No matter how despicable the regime, it was OK if it was properly aligned, meaning capitalist or communist.

After the Soviet Union fell, there was hope that this country would choose its allies based on the content of their character. But in this post-9/11 world, we've fallen back to our old tendencies.

Look at the blanket U.S. support for the corrupt Karzai government in Afghanistan, our necessary buddy in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

That fight is also dictating our relationship with Ethiopia, a key ally in the Horn of Africa. That part of the continent has become a fountainhead for piracy and worldwide terrorist activity.

The Ethiopian government has wisely decided that it would be undermined by any infiltration of terrorist organizations rooted in neighboring Somalia and Eritrea, the former Ethiopian territory with which it fought a 30-year war. Across the Gulf of Aden lies Yemen, another terrorist host.

Because it is an ally against terrorism, Ethiopia has been rewarded with millions of dollars in U.S. military aid. Not only that, the U.S. government also has largely been silent in regard to many human-rights abuses in the country.

And, just as with Afghanistan, this country is unlikely to do more than mildly rebuke the results of Ethiopia's parliamentary election. The balloting Sunday occurred amid criticism by international observers that government repression had guaranteed the results before any vote was cast.

Indeed, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party appeared to have won at least 534 of 547 parliamentary seats. That ensures another six-year term for him.

Meles has been in power since 1991, when the guerrillas he led toppled the brutal Red Terror regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which had toppled the repressive monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Yes, such has been the fate of Ethiopia, which has existed since the time of Christ - one despot after another.

Thousands of Ethiopians were tortured, murdered, or "disappeared" under Mengitsu's authority. Forced relocations ordered by his Marxist government, drought, and disease had made the country a basket case by the time Meles took over. President Bill Clinton called Meles part of a "new generation" of African leaders.

In fact, Meles has moved Ethiopia forward in many respects. He has greatly improved educational and economic opportunity in the past 19 years. But, like others whose power was derived at the point of a gun, he has no tolerance for dissent. Elections are only a prop for these autocrats, who believe only they are capable of leading their countries.

Meles certainly didn't want a repeat of the 2005 elections, when an opposition coalition won enough seats to make him nervous. A subsequent crackdown on those protesting his victory as fraudulent left hundreds of people dead. Since then, political foes have been beaten and jailed.

Today, membership in the Meles party is required for almost any educational or professional advancement. Journalists are afraid to criticize the regime. So are ordinary people, who say retaliation might cost them their jobs, or worse. They have good reason to keep quiet. But what about this country? Will its war keep it from speaking the truth to an ally?



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