The War on Terror's Newest Combatant
Things are getting positively biblical in the War on Terror’s African front.
According to Agence France Presse, Ethiopia is about to attack the Somali Islamists single-handed, on their own hook, and with assistance from nobody. On Thursday Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Ethiopian parliament that the Islamists represented “a clear threat to Ethiopia” and that the government had “completed the preparations” for full-scale war. The Islamists, who triggered the crisis by declaring Jihad on the Ethiopians, have (of all possible moves) turned to the United States for mediation.
The interesting thing here is the fact that Ethiopia, though one of the remotest and most isolated nations on earth (it was considered a candidate for the mythical lost kingdom of Prester John during the late medieval period), played a serious role in both of the long wars of the 20th century – the battles against fascism and communism.
In 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in order to fulfill his grandiose vision of a modern Roman empire, along with avenging the 1895 defeat at Adowa, where the Ethiopians annihilated an invading Italian army. With the help of poison gas and carpet bombing, he succeeded in a swift campaign that scattered Ethiopia’s peasant army and forced Emperor Haile Selassie to flee the country.
Nearly forty years later Ethiopia became the first of many nations to fall to communism’s final surge of conquest when in 1974 the government was overthrown by a Marxist clique led by army officer Mengistu Mariam. The emperor, by then a very old man, was murdered in his bed. The regime went on to kill another million and a half Ethiopians over the next decade.
In neither case did the world at large do much of anything in response. In 1935, the League of Nations expelled Italy, but no more. In 1974, the world neither noticed nor cared.
But in both cases, Ethiopia was a harbinger of coming defeat for the ideologies. Mussolini, until 1935, was widely considered a great man, his fascism a kind of magic formula for solving the problems of a modern economy. After Ethiopia, he was an international pariah, left with nowhere to turn but Hitler’s Germany. When war came, Ethiopia was in 1940 the first nation liberated from fascism.
In the 1970s, the takeover of Ethiopia marked the start of the dramatic expansion of communist influence that led in turn to overextension and collapse. The Soviets wasted massive amounts of resources fighting wars and propping up regimes across southern and central Africa, Central America, and Asia. When the West rebounded in the 1980s, the Soviets were caught short, and never did recover before the historical curtain fell in 1989.
There’s no telling how the current crisis will work out. Ethiopia won a previous war against Somalia in 1978, but that was with large-scale Soviet assistance. They are going it alone this time. The Islamists are little more than bandits, not likely to stand up against any kind of organized force. But, as the U.S. has reason to know, they are also masters of insurgency warfare. We can hope the Ethiopians don’t get themselves embroiled in an endless low-level conflict they can neither win nor – Somalia being right next door – retreat from.
But there’s something that resonates about this little conflict. It’s not simply another hopeless and savage African war. Ethiopia, youngest of democracies, is under its ancient name of Abyssinia, the oldest Christian state. And Haile Selassie’s sobriquet, as the last Christian emperor, was “the Lion of Judah”. And now, with the West under siege, with the center not holding, with all giving way to appeasement, and surrender, and “realism”, the soldiers of the ancient kingdom are girding themselves to do battle with the interloper.
They may well see off the Islamists the same as they did the fascists and communists. War is fought not only on the battlefield, but in the realm of the symbolic as well. What is unfolding in the Horn of Africa today may, on that level, be far more crucial than anyone would guess.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.