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Eritrea-US State Department’s Erroneous and Deceptive Rehearsed Script-Speak

On 24 March 2010 I went to the Rayburn building where Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) was holding a hearing on US policy for Africa. Johnnie Carson, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs was there to speak about the Obama Administration’s Policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. The statement and paper he presented before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health is available on the US State Department site for those who want to read it. Johnny Carson briefly highlighted Obama’s 5-point policy and when he was done, the questions and answer session began. The session began with a question on US relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was obvious to Donald Payne that the US State Department employed double standards on issues relating to Ethiopia and Eritrea. While it downplayed and covered up Ethiopia’s numerous violations of international law, human rights abuses including genocides in the Gambela, Ogaden and Oromia regions in Ethiopia, election related harassments and intimidations as well as detentions of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians for voting it out of office in the 2005 elections, violations of the UN Charter and over two dozen Security Council resolutions and more, it went out of its way to exaggerate the state of affairs in Eritrea, and presenting Eritrea in the worst possible light. He was not wrong in his observations, as that is exactly what Johnnie Carson did.

He said that he had talked to Meles Zenawi, the leader of the minority regime and Washington’s “staunch ally” (a.k.a. man on the ground) about the Ethiopian governments “shortcomings”, and that he had encouraged him to “act responsibly” as it was not good for his government’s “image and credibility”. On the minority regime’s jamming of Voice of America (VoA), he said that it had issues with the Amharic service program and that the State Department was talking to the VoA to iron out the problems. As for the statements made about VoA being like Radio Rwanda, Carson thought that it was “distressing”.

As I said, no matter what questions he was asked about Ethiopia, he minimized the issues, or blamed the problems on others-not Meles Zenawi. Johnnie Carson, just like his predecessors is once again providing the diplomatic, financial, political and military shield and support as Meles Zenawi terrorizes the people of Ethiopia and invades and occupies sovereign terrorizes in neighboring states. When Johnnie Carson finished statements on Ethiopia and his futile attempts to cover-up Meles Zenawi’s international crimes and numerous human rights violations, he pounced at Eritrea.

I looked over at Johnnie Carson and I realized that in responding to the question about Eritrea he looked like he was reading something. I was puzzled. Since there was no mention of Eritrea in his presentation, how is it that he came there with a prepared spill on Eritrea? Or was he just bending down so as to avoid making eye contact with the lawmakers as he misrepresented Eritrea, its people and its government? I believe it was the former. I say that because I had heard the same rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea before, and so have many others who have make the “think tank” circuits.

Johnnie Carson immediately started in with what has to be the US State Department’s rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea. For those of you unaware of “scripts”, they are exactly what you might imagine- Prefab spoken lines to use in certain situations. It’s like the WMD line that all Bush Administration officials used to spread the lie about Iraq having “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and feeding that lie to the American public through the media, at schools, at Universities, at US think tanks etc. etc. It’s the Bureau of African Affairs spoken negative ad on Eritrea.

The way it works with rehearsed script-speak, whatever you say is completely ignored and instead of answering the questions that you are asked, you utter the next rehearsed line, and then the next, and then the next etc. etc. . It is some sort of Alpha Dog power play, a bullying tactic, used by Johnnie Carson and his team to always put Eritrea on the defensive. It is a ploy meant to catch the questioners/listener’s off-guard, allowing Johnnie Carson to assume a dominant stature in the dialog, and of course to control the direction of the conversations. Johnnie Carson’s scripts are intended to manipulate, and avoid addressing the more serious issues between Eritrea and the US in a coherent and comprehensive manner. There is a saying in Tigrinya that says “Semam hade derfu”, and this rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea is a good example of it.

The first time I heard the US State Department’s rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea, it was at the Wilson Center and it came from Ambassador Robert Houdek. At a book event at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC Ambassador Houdek, repeated word for word Ambassador Johnnie Carson’s rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea. I wrote about it at that time and I thought then that Ambassador Houdek’s lists of tirades against Eritrea were of his own.  Little did I know that he too had memorized the rehearsed Johnnie Carson’s rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea. After all, he and Carson are very well known to each other, as both are long time National Intelligence Officers on the Africa beat.

At an event at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of international affairs on 18 February 2010, after a similar presentation on US policy for Africa, a participant asked Johnnie Carson why the US Administration was not enforcing the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s final and binding decision. Just as he did at the Congressional hearing, he totally evaded the question and US’ role as guarantors and witnesses (and crafters) of the Algiers Agreement and instead went out on long-winded tangent to malign the Government of Eritrea with his rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea. So what are the issues that he raises in his rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea? I will endeavor to address them one more time as there may be students, policy makers, analysts etc. who may have also heard the rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea and gotten the wrong impression about the country and its leadership.

Rehearsed script-speak item #1- Eritrea rebuffed Hillary Clinton’s attempts to engage

Johnnie Carson and Houdek have said that Hillary Clinton’s attempts to reach out to Eritrea were “rebuffed”. Supposedly, she wanted to reach President Isaias Afwerki over the phone and he was not available to speak to her. Considering the strained US-Eritrea relations, is that the best she could do? Eritrea is not a strange country for Clinton and when she visited Eritrea as First Lady, she was warmly welcomed by the President of Eritrea and the people of Eritrea.

The last time I was in Eritrea, there were people in Embadorho who remembered her well. She had gone there during the inauguration of a clinic there, which still bears her name; she was accorded a warm welcome by the inhabitants there who still remember that visit. They were actually hoping that she would break the ice and restore US-Eritrea relations; they never imagined that she could sanction Eritrea. No Eritrean did. If Hillary Clinton can criss-cross the worlds oceans to “sanction” and “isolate” countries, I think she can make a little effort to make peace with the people of Eritrea…assuming that is what she really wants. This is a flimsy excuse for not engaging Eritrea and it certainly cannot be categorized as a “bilateral issue”.

Rehearsed script-speak item #2- Embassy of Eritrea refused to issue Johnny Carson a visa

Whenever he is approached by Eritrean-Americans and questioned about US policy for Eritrea, Johnnie Carson begins his rehearsed script-speak by telling them that the Eritrean Ambassador refused to grant him a visa. That is so far from the truth. I don’t know how a grown man can lie with such ease. This issue has also been addressed, but Carson is not willing to drop it from his script and so it will be repeated and so it needs to be explained again.

Johnnie Carson’s passport was at the Eritrean Embassy for less than 10 minutes. The person, who brought it, took it back to fill out the necessary forms and never came back.
On 18 June 2009, Voice of America reported the following about Johnny Carson:

“… I met with the Eritrean ambassador and asked to meet with President Isaias Afewerki. If he will give me a visa, I will be there.” However, after Carson left his passport with the Eritrean embassy “for an extended period” he was surprised to find it returned “without a visa in it…If relations are not improved it will not be because we’re not trying to act as a respected partner…”

The Eritrean Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Ghirmai Ghebremariam clarified the issue in an interview with Voice of America. He at no time denied Carson a visa. Carson had expressed his desire to visit Eritrea, but did not specify any date. Eritrea´s Ambassador to the United States advised Mr. Carson that the Eritrean officials that he wanted to meet with were not going to be available; they were on travel out of the country. The Eritrean Ambassador told him that his visa would be issued within minutes when he had fixed his travel date to Asmara. Since he was going to attend the African Union summit in Libya, Mr. Carson said that he needed to get a visa and that he would send someone to pick up his visa from the Eritrean Embassy, and that is what he did.

Soon after he picked up his passport, Voice of America reported that Eritrea had refused to issue Mr. Carson a visa. Repeating this rehearsed script says more about Carson’s diplomatic skills than it does about Eritrea’s desire to engage the US constructively. Wining and lying about not getting a visa is not “respectful” and it certainly is not diplomatic. Johnnie Carson does not want to engage with Eritrea and this is yet another excuse for not doing so.

Rehearsed script-speak item # 3-Detention of 2 Eritrean employees at US Embassy in Eritrea

How many nationals that work at US Embassies and Consulates around the world are detained today with charges of espionage and other crimes against their own governments and peoples? Is Johnnie Carson telling us that these nationals are above the law? The two Eritrean nationals have been detained for violating Eritrea’s laws and being employees of the US Embassy does not give them immunity. The individuals detained in Asmara have been put on administrative detention for activities that took place at the US Embassy in Asmara. If the US State department was so concerned about its national staff, it would not compromise them by making them do things that are against the law and then cry foul when they get caught.

Besides, the US does not have the moral or legal authority to speak about this issue when hundreds of people are being held in CIA run prisons around the world and right here in the United States for “national security” reasons. Johnnie Carson knows that today, there are many countries, including the United States, Israel and Australia resort to administrative detention as a means to “combat terrorism” and “control illegal immigration”. The US has detained hundreds of individuals at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and other secret prisons around the world, including in Ethiopia for unknown reasons. Their families have no contact, some don’t even know where they are, they are snatched from their homes, their places of employment, from the streets and they get no legal representation.

Rehearsed script-speak item #4- Eritrea’s “meddling in Somalia”

Eritrea is not meddling in Somalia’s affairs. As a neighbor and as a country with strong historical ties between the two peoples, Eritrea provided a peaceful environment to enable all Somalis, from all walks of life, to come together and iron out their differences as opposed to killing each other. The meeting convened in Asmara was not conducted in secret and there was no pretense that it was the only solution for Somalia’s problems. Eritrea strongly believes that the Somali people ought to be left alone to resolve their own issues. It does not believe in pitting one group against the other and does not supply arms to Somalia as it strongly believes in a political solution to the myriad problems in Somalia. So instead of pointing fingers at Eritrea, the US ought to be playing a constructive role in the region to bring peace to the region and not pitting one country against another.

Eritrea has not and does not support Al Shabbab. Johnnie Carson knows that and yet he repeatedly tries to associate Eritrea with Al Shabbab and the reasons are very transparent. The record is clear and the UN itself has been forced to admit that there is no evidence to show that Eritrea is providing arms to Somali groups-none. The Amrch 2010 report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia says that Ethiopia is the main supplier of arms to Somali war lords. The illegitimate Transitional National Government of Somalia (TNG) led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and the African Union peacekeepers who are supplied by the United States are also mentioned as key contributors to the arms swell in Somalia.

Despite attempts by others to misrepresent it Eritrea’s principled position on Eritrea is well-known, Eritrea’s efforts in 2007 to bring all the Somali people to dialogue and find their own solutions, was undermined and hijacked. The US State Department was more interested in “sidelining” Eritrea than finding a sustainable solution for Somalia. Eritrea has a vested interest in seeing a peaceful and stable Somalia, Ethiopia does not. It seems the US is willing to back Ethiopia’s war of attrition in Somalia instead.

Rehearsed script-speak item #5-US Ambassador to Eritrea has not presented his credentials and Ambassador’s movements are restricted

In Eritrea, as in all other countries, precedence is regulated by seniority, dating from the notification of the arrival of the envoy and is scheduled in groups. When it was time for Ambassador McMullen and those in his batch to present their letters of credentials to H.E. President Isaias Afwerki, Ambassador McMullen was not available; he was on travel, even though he was notified about the date almost a month earlier. He left the country knowing full well that he was scheduled to present his credentials. If they did not want him to present his credentials, they would not have scheduled him to do so in the first place. Another self-fulfilling act used to justify US disengagement with Eritrea.

Johnnie Carson must know that the Eritrean Ambassador is also restricted and not allowed to even travel to New York without State Department permission, ditto for is staff. As for the “interference with the diplomatic pouch”, that too has been addressed ad nauseum. Lest Carson give the wrong impression about these “pouches”, let it be known that he is talking about containers and not 70 lb packages. Eritrea has been experiencing delays and “interferences” too, but has never raised it as being a serious “bilateral issue”. 

After listening to Johnnie Carson repeating the same line at the Congressional hearing, I am more than certain that there is an agreed upon, rehearsed script-speak on Eritrea and it is a concerted effort to spread lies about Eritrea by Johnnie Carson and the incompetent Bureau of African Affairs that he leads. Repeating the same rehearsed script-speak whenever Eritrea is mentioned is Johnnie Carson’s way of avoiding dealing with the more serious issues such as the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue.

How Johnnie Carson and his team resolve the outstanding issues between the US and Eritrea will be the most critical test of the Obama Administration’s ability to act effectively in the strategically important Horn region, which will greatly impact US credibility, integrity and reputation, both regionally and internationally. How the United States deals with Eritrea also will have a significant effect on America’s influence in the Horn region in particular and the Middle East in general, relative to other external players, particularly China, India and Russia. Whether the US acknowledges Eritrea’s pivotal role in the region or not, more so than in the past, diplomatic stasis between the United States and Eritrea, with the US “sidelining”, “isolating” and “sanctioning” Eritrea will not promote US’ long term strategic and political interests in the region.

So until the US is ready to engage with Eritrea in a more serious manner, expect to hear Johnnie Carson’s rehearsed 5-point scripts speak on Eritrea wherever he goes, and US’ reputation and credibility sink with every line.

The rule of law must prevail over the law of the jungle!

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