I think I may need to do a series about “Bab el Mandeb-ia”. This crucial strait between Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti has enormous potential. It’s the choke point of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. But unlike Panama, or Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the countries surrounding the “gate of tears” seem to have received a curse rather than a blessing. There is so much packed into this region. Tiny countries like Djibouti and behemoths like Ethiopia, Christians, Muslims and Jews, the world’s richest countries and some of the poorest, long-standing US interests, and brand new Chinese bases, this strait has everything.
If the Bab el Mandeb is mentioned in the context of US geopolitics it’s usually looked at as a threat. Some insurgent group or US rival could capture the strait and cause great damage. This possibility exists, but it’s far more interesting to look at the potential. Places like Panama, the mouth of the Baltic sea, and even, to a lesser extent, the straits of Malacca, exist in a much more homogenous cultural context than the countries surrounding the Bab el Mandeb. There is a culture unifying “Bab el Mandeb-ia” but it’s been torn apart by centuries of abusive empires, ideological strife, and general impoverishment. If some of the trends I talk about in today’s video come to fruition, we could see one of the world’s most impressive places return to prominence. That would be a fantastic thing to watch.
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Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there… and happy New Year! Today we are going to do one of my favorite things, and compare the experiences of three different countries and try to learn a few lessons. Keep in mind that the situations and histories of these three countries are super different, so obviously you should take this video with a grain of salt, but I think it’s worth doing regardless. Today, the question is, does Sudan’s future look more like Ethiopia or Syria?
Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, is facing one of the largest protest movements of his waaay too long tenure in power. Bashir is pretty awful. You may remember that whole Darfur genocide thing. It turns out it’s still happening and Bashir’s government has slaughtered somewhere between 100 and 400 thousand people to date. He also managed to lose the entire southern half of his country in one of Africa’s longest civil wars, ending up in 2011. Bashir did all this warring and genociding on the behalf of the country’s Arab majority, but it now seems that much of that majority is finally rising against him. In recent weeks protests calling for the end of the regime have spread all over the country, and dozens of protesters have been killed. This 25 year old dictatorship looks shaky.
Now Omar al Bashir has seen opposition like this before. The most likely result is still probably that his regime cracks down, issues some bribes and survives. But what if it can’t manage that? We have two very different examples of what can happen. The US and other “humanitarian” countries can seek a military solution. That’s what happened in Syria.
In 2011 a protest movement was met with a crackdown from Bashar Assad’s brutal regime. Outside powers encouraged violent rebellion by calling for the fall of Assad and rushing to spend billions funding the violent resistance that emerged. This resulted in the destruction of much of Syria’s state machinery, the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Assad has not been taken out, and even worse, Syria has been knocked back decades in its economic development. The regime may have won but the country’s shattered regions are run by a wide variety of warlords both foreign and domestic. This has not been a good result for anyone.
One of Sudan’s neighbors provides a much better example. Ethiopia has gone through an extraordinary transition over the past year or so. Back in 2016 I called out the Ethiopian government on this channel. It’s worth taking a look at that clip in detail.
Now look, Assad is a mass murderer, and a terrible leader. Looked at in isolation, these actions by the US government seem like a good thing. But you have to realize that they only happen in certain countries. Where was the US ambassador during similar issues in Bahrain at the same time? What was Obama saying? What’s the US ambassador doing in Ethiopia this month, where dozens of peaceful protesters have been killed? What’s Obama saying?
Essentially nothing. Mild disapproval has been expressed. No sanctions, no coordination of the opposition, and certainly no protest tourism, like we had in Syria and in John McCain’s ridiculous trip to Ukraine. Ethiopia and Bahrain, like most countries in the world, are comfortably aligned with the United States. It’s only a special class of countries that get the full regime change treatment. Washington, DC’s Shit list is a bad list to be on.
As recently as the beginning of 2018 it was easy to want the world to do more to confront the Ethiopian government. Instead, they were left to largely figure things out for themselves. How did that go?
Perhaps we should back up a bit. When I was growing up, Ethiopia was an extreme cold war casualty, with mass starvation and a series of ruinous wars with itself and with neighbors like Somalia. In 1991 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutuonary Democratic Front or EPRDF came to power. It started out more representative, but under the pressure of a ruinous war with neighbor Eritrea, the elections got faker, and the people got angrier. EPRDF prime minister Meles Zenawi probably would have ruled as long as President Bashir of Sudan if his death hadn’t intervened. Zenawi and his successor were at least competent economic managers, but by 2016 the growing fiscal pie was providing more for Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups to fight over.
The Ethiopian government was regularly massacring members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, and repression of all political and ethnic groupings had reached full on authoritarian levels. Over a million people were displaced in fighting between ethnic groups, and Ethiopia looked to be falling apart. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t.
The EPRDF appointed a Prime Minister from the Oromo minority, and he quickly began making bold reforms. He has seemingly ended one of the world’s worst frozen conflicts, renewing economic and diplomatic links with Eritrea. He has opened up the prisons and welcomed back political exiles in preparation for what he claims will be free elections in 2020. He has also ended the state of emergency, and initiated an ambitious slate of economic reforms.
Ethiopia still has problems that may outweigh it’s potential, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made progress this past year that can only be described as stunning. Obviously we would all be happier for Sudan to have Ethiopia’s experience rather than Syria’s. The Sudanese state needs to be reformed, not destroyed. What’s frustrating is that the most important factor here isnt. found in Sudan.
If I know the US intelligence community, and I think I do, there are already elements that are angling to pull another Syria on this Muslim country. Back in the 1990s Bashir’s government provided shelter to Osama Bin Laden, and Sudan has only recently been removed from the US list of state sponsors of terror. The fact that Bashir has worked hard to get back in the US’s good graces might not save him from CIA sponsored rebels. It certainly didn’t save Ghaddafi.
This would be a terrible, terrible mistake. If the US leaves Sudan alone it won’t automatically end up in as hopeful a position as Ethiopia. But if we let the CIA have it’s way with the country there is no hope at all. The US world order actually has a strategy that has very effectively dealt with dozens if dictators in my lifetime. It has nothing to do with armed rebellion.
Thanks for watching please subscribe, and check out my video Regime change is always a mistake to hear about the right way to deal with dictators.