The United States, the incoming chair of the U.N. Security Council, is declaring January 2000 the "Month of Africa," according to U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Regrettably, events this month may include the slaughter of tens of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans. On Dec. 6 Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that he rejected a peace plan with Eritrea in a war that has cost the lives of more than 30,000 soldiers and noncombatants.
For many months, the United States has worked behind the scenes to stop the bloodshed. A reasonable peace plan was created through the efforts of U.S. Special Envoy Tony Lake and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who chairs the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
By rejecting this plan, however, Meles has dashed hopes for a peaceful resolution to the war. The time has come for the United States and the international community to condemn the Ethiopians' intransigence and urge them not to launch an attack.
Meles has said that "Ethiopia will not kneel down to any pressure imposed on the country to accept the technical arrangements [of the peace plan], unless the document is prepared to guarantee its sovereignty." Ethiopia appears prepared to reignite the war, which has leached into neighboring countries and ruined efforts to contain the militant fundamentalist Islamic government of Sudan.
My colleagues on the International Relations Committee and I are disappointed in Meles's rejection of the OAU peace plan. What appeared in May 1998 to be a minor border dispute between two allies has evolved into a treacherous feud. Initially, Eritrea refused to accept the plan for mutual withdrawal and independent demarcation of the disputed border. At that time, Ethiopia roundly criticized that reluctance and cited it as evidence of Eritrean aggression.
However, after several rounds of fighting in which Ethiopia gained substantial territory in one area but stalled against stiff Eritrean resistance on another front, Eritrea suddenly agreed to the peace plan. Ethiopia appeared surprised by the move and in August asked for technical clarifications regarding the implementation of the agreement.
The OAU complied and with the United States and other interlocutors has attempted to answer every Ethiopian concern that the implementation would be fair and binding on all parties. After a time, it became clear that Ethiopia was hostile to the agreement and was stalling for time to recruit and train tens of thousands of additional troops.
Ethiopia's rationale seems to be that it must deal with its neighbor decisively now, or it will have a bigger problem later. But instead of ensuring its long-term security concerns through the bonds of law, treaty and trade, Ethiopia is trying to ensure its security through force. This approach is shortsighted. Ethiopia, a diverse nation of 60 million, has overestimated the threat to its security posed by Eritrea's 3.5 million citizens.
The Ethiopian ruling party emerged from the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and its paranoia about Eritrean hegemony reflects the slings and arrows it suffered at the hands of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (now in charge in Eritrea) during a mutual struggle against the dictator Mengistu in the '80s. Although those grievances may be real, a developing nation state with a firm place in the international system has no business indulging in vendettas.
If the expected Ethiopian attack takes place, the question of who started what on the plains of Badme last May will not be recalled outside Tigrayan ballads. What will be remembered -- and factored into the international security calculations of our nation and others -- is that Ethiopia chose to sacrifice economic growth, international goodwill, a growing relationship with the United States and tens of thousands of its own soldiers to exact the pound of flesh demanded by a narrow and frightened domestic constituency.
Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia is a courageous and honorable man. But leadership means more than unbending will and a piece of land. The wisest sovereigns sometimes walk away from war to win peace. If Holbrooke wants to make the "Month of Africa" mean something, he should consider calling on Ethiopia to leash its dogs of war.
The writer, a Republican representative from New York, chairs the House International Relations Committee.