TCS Daily

As It Turns Out, Preemption Works

By J. Peter Pham & Michael I. Krauss - February 8, 2007 12:00 AM

Until its last emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974, Ethiopia's constitution boasted that he descended "without interruption from the dynasty of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of Jerusalem." This claim was based on an apocryphal interpretation of the visit described in 1 Kings 10, wherein the Hebrew king seduced the visiting Queen by parching her palate and trading sex for a pitcher of water.

Whatever the truth behind what Ethiopian scholar Kinfe Abraham termed a "curious alchemy of glory and myth," the links between Israel and Ethiopia are many. The African country was long home to an ancient Jewish community, Beta Israel (more commonly known as Falasha, Amharic for "exiles"), the majority of whose over 90,000 members immigrated to Israel in Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). The dominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church, granted its own Patriarch by the Coptic Church of Alexandria in 1959, still venerates as its most precious relic a shrouded box inside its oldest church complex, Our Lady Mary of Zion, located in the ancient capital of Axum. This box is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant (aron habrit), built at the foot of Mount Sinai and borne victoriously into the Promised Land. Ethiopian churches are designed according to Jewish tradition, and Ethiopian Christians' dietary laws are similar to the rules of Kashrut. Ethiopia's connection with sacred history continued into the Christian period; one of the first foreign converts to the new faith was a eunuch, "a minister of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians" (Acts 8:27), who encountered the apostle Philip while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Until recently, Ethiopians arguably received more from the Judeo-Christian legacy than they gave. With the recent defeat by Ethiopian forces of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, however, part of this debt has been repaid. Some of the defeated forces had links to al-Qaeda: indeed, the ICU was sheltering three al-Qaeda leaders (Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan, and Abu Taha al-Sudani) responsible for 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya.

There may be several lessons for Israel, and for the United States, in this near total rout of Islamist radicals. First: decisive unilateral pre-emption works. Confronted by an extremist enemy with a long history of terrorist acts against it, who had set up a haven for foreign militants—among fighters captured during the offensive were Arabs, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, and holders of British, Canadian and Scandinavian passports—and faced with an international community unable and/or unwilling to deal effectively with the threat, the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi responded decisively with a preemptive strike, albeit one technically endorsed by Somalia's phantasmal transitional government. The security of both the Horn of Africa and the world has been enhanced by this resolute action of self-defense—which the Wall Street Journal aptly described as an "act of regional hygiene."

Second: there is no substitute for "boots on the ground." Once they decided to go on the offensive, despite enjoying clear superiority—the Islamists had no aircraft—the Ethiopians did not rely exclusively or even predominantly on airpower. Some 20,000 soldiers were deployed in combat operations with many more on reserve, despite the historical enmity between Somalis and Ethiopians. Unlike the Israeli operation in last year's war in Lebanon, or U.S. preferences in Iraq until recently, there was no talk of a politically correct "light footprint."

Third, when you fight, don't tie one hand behind your back. While there are no reliable estimates of civilian casualties during the campaign, no doubt the number was elevated. Officers with whom we have been in contact are unambiguous: while they sought to minimize collateral damage to people and infrastructure, they held that responsibility for such losses rested with terrorists who hid out among civilians. Ethiopians who deployed Mi-24 Hind helicopter gun ships—and U.S. forces that subsequently launched air strikes against two "high value" targets using AC-130 gun ships—gave no quarter to fleeing militants whose vehicles became stuck in the quagmire of Somalia's flooded Juba Valley. Charred remains of dozens of vehicles still litter the landscape. The Ethiopians did what they had to do to kill the enemy. Let it be noted that Ethiopia had the advantage that their operations took place in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, one which Western media is not attracted to—especially during the holiday season.

Fourth, an enemy cannot be destroyed unless its avenues of escape are sealed. Between advancing Ethiopian troops sweeping everything in their path, Kenyans who had closed their borders with Somalia (notwithstanding protests by the International Committee of the Red Cross), and Americans blockading the coast with the guided missile cruisers U.S.S. Bunker Hill and U.S.S. Anzio, the dock landing ship U.S.S. Ashland, and the carrier U.S.S. Eisenhower and its battle group, ICU militants had no "humanitarian corridors" through which their foreign sponsors in the Middle East could rush men and materiel.

Fifth, strike while the iron is hot. Ethiopia prudently used the time that its partner, the U.S., bought for it. Although a United Nations Security Council Resolution (1725) creating a "peacekeeping" force for Somalia was unanimously passed in early December, the resolution was so clumsily crafted—perhaps purposely—that the promised contingent has yet to be constituted, much less deployed. In the meantime, Ethiopian forces achieved all their strategic objectives. United Nations apathy did not stop Addis Ababa.

Israel is still coping with the aftermath of the war in Lebanon. On January 17, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, submitted his resignation. A commission is now investigating the conduct of the conflict, and more recriminations and resignations are expected to follow. Now is, however, the time to look to the future, not the past. With Hezbollah having re-armed in Lebanon and threatening a coup d'état in that state, and with its Iranian paymaster looking to distract the international community from its ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is only a matter of time before things heat up again on Israel's northern frontier, as we predicted on this website both before and after last summer's war.

Perhaps this time, Solomon might learn a thing or two from Sheba.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. Both are adjunct fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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