An interesting case study in the Bush administration's penchant for forging bilateral alliances that are enabling some truly wretched regimes is Eritrea, a small Horn of Africa nation strategically located on the Red Sea, where some on the right would like to establish U.S. air and naval bases.
Eritrea is a truly remarkable country: There's virtually no crime; its half-Christian, half-Muslim population is highly nationalistic and anti-Islamist; intrinsic to the national character is a zealous ethic of self-reliance; and, unlike most places in Africa, the infrastructure is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, with the capital city of Asmara's constantly working water and electricity, swaying palm trees, stucco villas, and Fiat taxis, you might think you were in a slightly run-down art-deco city on Italy's Mediterranean coast, not in an African capital plunked in the middle of a 7,500 foot mountain plain.
But you'd also notice a lack of independent newspapers -- and a lack of the editors and writers responsible for their production. You might also notice the ranks of senior government leadership seeming to be a tad thin. That's because these days, quite a few Eritrean journalists and statesmen are in jail. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, since 2001, at least several hundred Eritreans have been rounded up and held incommunicado for the crime of wanting their constitution implemented.
When war broke out with neighboring Ethiopia in 1998, there was no lack of Eritrean national consensus about the need to rally around leader Isaias Afewerki. As chief of a guerilla movement that spent decades righteously fighting for Eritrean independence, Isaias' veneration knew no bounds (imagine Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy, Michael Jordan, and Eminem all rolled into one) by the time Eritrea got its sovereignty in 1993, and his assumption of presidential duties sans election was welcomed by the people. But in May 2001 -- almost a year after the border war with Ethiopia ended -- 15 prominent Eritrean political figures, now known as G15, wrote Isaias a letter calling for the implementation of Eritrea's new constitution, a document ratified, but not activated, shortly before the war in 1998.
This was, apparently, too much for Isaias -- who, ironically, would have been a shoo-in as Eritrea's first elected president. Of the May 2001 letter's 15 signatories, 11 were seized in September of 2001. That month Eritrea's independent press was shuttered, and nearly a dozen reporters and editors were arrested. By late last year, an estimated 300 Eritreans were being held incommunicado on account of their democratic proclivities, along with scores of others who have defied Isaias' decree that only the Catholic, Orthodox, Eritrean Lutheran, and Muslim religions may be practiced.
The continuing incarceration and flight of dissidents have proceeded apace. More than a dozen more diplomats and journalists have been arrested, and no fewer than 14 diplomats and five air-force pilots have gone into exile. Most recently, the wife of jailed G15er Petros Solomon was arrested upon returning to Eritrea after an extended visit to the United States.
Listen to certain elements of the American right, however, and you wouldn't know any of this. In July of 2002, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs passed a resolution calling for the "establishment of U.S. military facilities in Eritrea," effusing over Eritrea's status as an "island of stability in a volatile area." Not only were veteran Horn of Africa watchers amazed at the communiqué's failure to acknowledge Eritrea's downward spiral on human rights and civil society; they were also floored that the group made no mention of the fact that among the hundreds being held incommunicado are two Eritrean employees of the U.S. Embassy. And while the March 2004 edition of The Atlantic Monthly listed Eritrea as one of the world's most repressive regimes, in an April 2003 Atlantic article deriding Yemen and exalting Eritrea as a potential site for U.S. bases in a "transformed" Middle East, longtime neocon shill Robert Kaplan soft-pedaled the regime's excesses, concluding that Eritrea's unique approach to assuring "stability and discipline" make it "the perfect base for projecting American power and helping Israel in an increasingly unstable region."
While the State Department has made it clear that bases and airstrips in Eritrea are out of the question -- especially as long as U.S. Embassy personnel are being unjustly detained -- limited U.S.-Eritrean military and intelligence operations have gotten under way. And while some hawks continuously invoke as retrospective justification for the Iraq War the "25 million free Iraqis," Donald Rumsfeld has made it clear than in the name of the war on terrorism and an Americanized Middle East, Eritrea is no Iraq. "A country is a sovereign nation," Rumsfeld said in response to a question about human rights after meeting with Isaias in 2002. "And they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them."
Unless, of course, the United States asserts that you have weapons of mass destruction.