The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump should be mediating the dispute over the Nile dam. Instead he is inciting war.

President Trump meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the White House on April 3, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)

ETHIOPIA, EGYPT and Sudan have been locked in an increasingly tense standoff over an enormous dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile river, upstream from its neighbors. Nearing completion, the $5 billion project is crucial to Ethiopia’s development plans. It would more than double electricity output, transforming the lives of 65 million people who now lack it. But Egypt and Sudan, which also depend on the Nile, fear they will be starved of water as the giant reservoir behind the dam is filled.

This is a dispute that the United States ought to be helping to solve. Egypt and Ethiopia are long-standing U.S. allies and aid recipients, and relations between Washington and Khartoum are rapidly improving. Instead, President Trump is inciting war. Egypt, he proclaimed last week during a phone call with Sudanese officials, “will end up blowing up the dam . . . they have to do something.”

Probably, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom Mr. Trump has called “my favorite dictator,” won’t heed Mr. Trump. But Mr. Trump’s rash and ignorant remarks underlined how his administration has squandered U.S. leverage and abdicated leadership in Africa and around the world while alienating important allies. The latest example is Ethiopia, a country of 100 million people whose prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea.

The United States initially tried to mediate among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan earlier this year. Most experts believe a solution is possible: The countries must agree on how quickly the reservoir behind the dam is filled and how water supplies will be managed during future droughts. But rather than play honest broker, Mr. Trump sided with Mr. Sissi, a brutal but inept dictator whose regime blames Ethiopia for water shortages that are largely of Egypt’s own making.

When Ethiopia walked away from the talks and began filling the reservoir, Mr. Trump ordered that $264 million in U.S. security and development assistance be withheld — which only hardened Mr. Abiy’s resistance to U.S. pressure. Now Mr. Trump is suggesting that Egypt go to war with a country that has been an important ally in fighting al-Qaeda and its east African affiliates. The Ethiopian foreign ministry diplomatically responded that “the incitement of war between Ethiopia and Egypt from a sitting U.S. president” does not reflect “the long-standing partnership and strategic alliance between Ethiopia and the United States.” Former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn put it more pithily: Mr. Trump, he tweeted, “doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.”

Fortunately, other mediators are available: The African Union is seeking to broker a settlement. But its job will have been made more difficult by Mr. Trump, who has added fuel to nationalist passions in the three countries. Damaged U.S. relations with Ethiopia could probably be put right — but only if Mr. Trump loses next week’s election to Joe Biden.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Chaos in Libya and a dam dispute in East Africa reflect a world without U.S. leadership

Stephen Paduano: A conflict is brewing on the Nile — and the Trump administration is making things worse

David Ignatius: Two strategically sensitive countries are on the verge of war — and Trump is missing in action

Asli Aydintasbas and Sinan Ülgen: A conflict could be brewing in the eastern Mediterranean. Here’s how to stop it.

Josh Rogin: U.S. foreign policy might be too broken for Biden to fix