America meets Ethiopia

President Barack Obama made history this week becoming the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia and Kenya. During his three-day visit to Ethiopia the president held bilateral talks with President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) and Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn, who hosted a state dinner on Monday night at the national palace in President Obama’s honor. Apart from the bilateral discussions, the president made a historic address to the African Union in front of leaders, ambassadors and members of the civil society on Tuesday where he sharply criticized African leaders' tendency to cling to power. Furthermore, the president also visited a food factory—Faffa Foods—where he saw how his 'Feed the Future' initiative is affecting agricultural productivity in Ethiopia. The focus of the President's visit can perhaps be summed up by the issues raised at the joint presser that PM Hailemariam and President Obama gave at the national palace; which among other issues highlighted economic ties and security partnership between the two nations. Excerpts:

Question: Mr President, you mentioned earlier that combating terrorism is one of the areas in which Ethiopia and the US are partnering. However, organizations based in the US and Eritrea are also part of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism efforts. How will your government assist Ethiopia in this regard?

President Barack Obama: Well, this was part of our conversation both with respect to security, but also with respect to good governance and human rights issues. Our policy is that we oppose terrorism wherever it may occur. And we are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia that has been democratically elected.

I also shared with the Prime Minister our interest in deepening intelligence cooperation. And we've had some fruitful discussions about ending the flow of foreign financing for terrorism. Our cooperation regionally is excellent. I know that there are certain groups that have been active in Ethiopia that, from the Ethiopian government’s perspective, pose a significant threat. Our intelligence indicates that while they may oppose the government, they have not tipped into terrorism. And we have some very clear standards in terms of how we evaluate that.

But what I indicated to the Prime Minister is, is that in our consultations and deepening intelligence cooperation, we will look and see what evidence we have, where there are real problems, and where we see genuine terrorist activity. That's something that we are going to want to cooperate with and stop.

So a lot of this has to do with how we define a particular group’s activities. If they are just talking about issues and are in opposition and are operating as political organizations, we tend to be protective of them even if we don't agree with them. That's true in the United States; that's true everywhere. And we think that's part of what’s necessary for a democracy. If they tip into activities that are violent and are undermining a properly constituted government, then we have a concern.

And so this will be a matter of facts – what are the facts with respect to this issue – in determining how we can work together.

With regards to trade and investment cooperation, how committed is your government to transform the aid-based Ethiopia-US relations to a mutually beneficial trade and investment cooperation?

On shifting development models, part of what I've been preaching ever since I came into office, and what we've been putting into practice as I travel across the continent of Africa, but this is also true in Latin America, it's true in Asia – in this modern world, it is not enough just to provide aid. Sometimes aid is critical. I mean, we're very proud of the work that we've done to provide health aid that has saved millions of lives with respect to HIV/AIDS. We are very proud of our ability to mobilize humanitarian assistance when there’s a drought and the potential for starvation. Those are still necessary. But what we also believe is that we are your best partners and your best friends when we are building capacity.

So instead of just giving a fish, we teach you how to fish. And whether it's the work we're doing in agriculture, or on energy, our goal is not to simply provide something and then we go away, and then later on, we need to give you something more. Our goal is to help you advance your development agenda so that it's Ethiopian businesses and Ethiopian technical experts, and Ethiopian scientists, and Ethiopian agricultural workers who are continually building capacity and increasing development inside the country.

And on that, we can be a very effective partner. And that, then, allows us also to trade and engage the private sector in this process.

So, on Power Africa, for example, we are providing billions of dollars from the US government, and we're leveraging the Swedish government and World Bank to create a fund that helps to facilitate transactions. But what we're also doing is working with the Ethiopian government to leverage that money so that the private sector says, we’d like to invest in Ethiopia, as well, and helping advise the Ethiopian Energy Ministry and technical experts on what may be the best models for reaching rural areas, for example – which may not always involve big power plants but might involve off-grid, smaller models of development that are sustainable and are not dependent on constant financial flows from the West, but instead build up local capacity and are best suited for the particular environment where electricity is needed.

So that, I think, is going to be true in health, energy, agriculture. The more that Ethiopians are able to grow rapidly on their own, then our relationship becomes one of mutual interest, mutual respect. And Ethiopia then becomes a leader, and it can then help other countries that are not as advanced on the development scales. And then we can partner with you to help Somalia as it’s rebuilding after decades of failed governance.

I’d like to ask you about balance. And you often speak about the importance of rewarding good governance, and so I’m wondering how do you balance your obvious concerns about human rights here in Ethiopia with a desire for increased economic partnership and strengthening regional security cooperation?

Well, as I said in my opening remarks, this was a significant topic of conversation. We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recently in which the constitution that was formed and the elections put forward a democratically elected government. And as I indicated when I was in Kenya, there is still more work to do, and I think the Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that there’s more work to do.

The way we think about these issues is we want to engage with governments on areas of mutual concern and interest – the same way, by the way, that we deal with China and deal with a range of other countries where the democratic practices or issues around freedom of the press and assembly are not ones that align with how we are thinking about it, but we continually bring it up and we indicate that this is part of our core interest and concern in our foreign policy. That’s true here as well.

My observation to the Prime Minister has been that the governing party has significant breadth and popularity. And as a consequence, making sure to open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices, will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the Prime Minister and the ruling party has put forward.

And I think our goal here is to make sure that we are a constructive partner, recognizing that Ethiopia has its own culture and it’s not going to be identical to what we do, but there are certain principles that we think have to be upheld.

The one thing that I’ve tried to be consistent on, though, is to make sure that we don’t operate with big countries in one fashion and small countries in another. Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues. That’s true with Africa as well. We don’t improve cooperation and advance the very interest that you talk about by staying away. So we have to be in a conversation. And I think the Prime Minister will indicate that I don’t bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues, but I do so from a position of respect and regard for the Ethiopian people, and recognizing their history and the challenges that they continue to face.

Have you ruled out, or would you consider increased military involvement by the United States in East Africa to battle Al-Shabaab? And if so, what lessons could be learned from the battle against ISIS, for example, that might be relevant here?

With respect to our military assistance, keep in mind that we have been active in the fight against Al-Shabaab for a long time now. And we’ve been partnering with Ethiopia and Kenya and Uganda and the African Union and AMISOM. And that’s something that I think those other countries would agree has been a very effective partnership. Part of the reason that we’ve seen the shrinkage of Al-Shabaab’s activities in East Africa is because we have our military teams in consultation with regional forces and local forces, and there are certain capacities that we have that some of these militaries may not, and I think there have been complementarities in the work that we’ve done together. So we don’t need to send our own Marines, for example, in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters. And the Kenyans and Ugandans have been serious about putting troops on the ground, at significant sacrifice, because they recognize the importance of stabilizing the region.

That’s why, in the past, I’ve said, for example, that the work that we’re doing in Somalia is a model. Some in the press have noted that Al-Shabaab is still here, and they say, well, how can that be a model if you still have bombs going off? The point that I was making at that time is not that defeating any of these terrorist networks is easy, or that the problems in Somalia are completely solved. The point I was making was that a model in which we are partnering with other countries and they are providing outstanding troops on the ground – we're working with, in this case, the Somali government, which is still very much in its infancy, to develop its national security capacity – so that we’re doing things that we can do uniquely but does not require us putting boots on the ground – that’s the model that we’re talking about.

And Ethiopia is an outstanding partner in that process. They have one of the most effective militaries on the continent. And as I noted in my earlier remarks, they are also one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping. And so they’re averting a lot of bloodshed and a lot of conflict because of the effectiveness of their military, and we want to make sure that we’re supporting that.

What are your thoughts specifically on the IGAD Plus peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan?

IGAD has been a vital partner to the international community in leading discussions between Mr. Kiir, Mr. Machar, the government opposition figures in South Sudan. Unfortunately, the situation continues to deteriorate. That’s not because IGAD has not tried hard enough. I know that between Prime Minister Hailemariam and other partners in IGAD, there has been a lot of time and a lot of effort to push the parties together.

Nevertheless, the situation is deteriorating. The humanitarian situation is worsening. The possibilities of renewed conflict in a region that has been torn by conflict for so long and has resulted in so many deaths is something that requires urgent attention from all of us, including the international community.

That’s why, after this press conference, we’ll be consulting with leaders from the other countries who have been involved in IGAD to see how the United States, IGAD, and the international community can work to bring a peace agreement and a structure to fruition sometime in the next several weeks. We don’t have a lot of time to wait. The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse. And part of my interest in calling together this meeting was to find out how we can help.

Up until this point, it’s been very useful to have the African countries take the lead. As Prime Minister Hailemariam stated, the more that Africans are solving African problems, the better off we’re going to be. But we also think that we can be a mechanism for additional leverage on the parties, who, up until this point, have proven very stubborn and have not yet risen to the point where they are looking out for the interests of their nation as opposed to their particular self-interests. And that transition has to take place, and it has to take place now.

As you go into this meeting that you just mentioned, are you expecting any breakthroughs that will get both sides to agree to a peace deal by the August 17th deadline? And if there is no agreement, what further steps would you be willing to take to bring that about?

The goal here is to make sure that the United States and IGAD are aligned on a strategy going into this endgame on peace talks. So my hope is that, as a result of these consultations that we agree on how urgent it is and what each of us have to do to actually bring a deal about.

I don't want to prejudge what I'll hear from the President of Uganda, for example, until I actually hear from him. But the good news is that all of us recognize that something has got to move, because IGAD has now been involved with consultations with these individuals for a very, very long time, and our special envoys that have been involved in this for years now have concluded that now is the time for a breakthrough. And if we don't see a breakthrough by August 17th, then we're going to have to consider what other tools we have to apply greater pressure on the parties.

And that's something I think the parties will certainly hear from us. Our hope is that the message we deliver is similar to the message that they get from the IGAD countries and others who are interested in the issue.

In regard to Iran, would you kindly bring us up to date on the administration’s lobbying of Congress to get approval for the deal? And would you include your reaction to Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee saying that the deal is the equivalent of marching the Israelis toward “the door of the oven”?

I won't give a grade to our lobbying efforts. In fact, I'm not even sure I'd characterize it as lobbying. What we’re doing is presenting facts about an international agreement that 99 percent of the world thinks solves a vital problem in a way that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and does so diplomatically. 13

And essentially what we've been seeing is Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz – who is an expert on nuclear issues – just providing the facts, laying out exactly what the deal is, explaining how it cuts off all the pathways for Iran to get a nuclear weapon; explaining how it puts in place unprecedented verification and inspection mechanisms; explaining how we have snapback provisions so that if they cheat, we immediately re-impose sanctions; explaining also how we will continue to address other aspects of Iranian behavior that are of deep concern to us and our allies – like providing arms to terrorist organizations.

So the good news, I guess, is that I have not yet heard a factual argument on the other side that holds up to scrutiny. There’s a reason why 99 percent of the world thinks that this is a good deal – it's because it's a good deal. There’s a reason why the overwhelming majority of nuclear scientists and nonproliferation experts think it's a good deal – it's because it's a good deal. It accomplishes our goal, which is making sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. In fact, it accomplishes that goal better than any alternative that has been suggested.

And you’ve heard me stand up in front of the press corps and try to get a good argument on the other side that's based in fact as opposed to rhetoric. And I haven’t gotten one yet. So if you're asking me, how do you think our argument is going, it's going great. Now, if you're asking me about the politics of Washington and the rhetoric that takes place there, that doesn’t always go great.

The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are, I think, part of just a general pattern that we've seen that is – would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad. We've had a sitting senator call John Kerry Pontius Pilate. We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for President suggested that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders in the Republican Party. And part of what historically has made America great is, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, there’s been recognition that these issues are too serious, that issues of war and peace are of such grave concern and consequence that we don't play fast and loose that way. We have robust debates, we look at the facts, there are going to be disagreements. But we just don't fling out ad hominem attacks like that, because it doesn’t help inform the American people.

I mean, this is a deal that has been endorsed by people like Brent Scowcroft and Sam Nunn – right? – Historic Democratic and Republican leaders on arms control and on keeping America safe. And so when you get rhetoric like this, maybe it gets attention and maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines, but it's not the kind of leadership that is needed for America right now. And I don't think that's what anybody – Democratic, Republican, or independent – is looking for out of their political leaders. In fact, it's been interesting when you look at what’s happened with Mr. Trump, when he’s made some of the remarks that, for example, challenged the heroism of Mr. McCain, somebody who endured torture and conducted himself with exemplary patriotism, the Republican Party is shocked. And yet, that arises out of a culture where those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets. And I recognize when outrageous statements like that are made about me, that a lot of the same people who were outraged when they were made about Mr. McCain were pretty quiet.

The point is we're creating a culture that is not conducive to good policy or good politics. The American people deserve better. Certainly, presidential debates deserve better. In 18 months, I'm turning over the keys – I want to make sure I'm turning over the keys to somebody who is serious about the serious problems the country faces and the world faces. And that requires on both sides, Democrat and Republican, a sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty. And I think that's what the voters expect, as well.