Blinken appeases Africa’s most totalitarian state

By Michael Rubin | Washington Examiner

President of Eritrea

Eritrea is, alongside North Korea, the world’s most totalitarian state. President Isaias Afwerki brokers no dissent. Fearing popular will, he allows no election but rather subjects his population to indefinite conscription to make them slaves of the state. The country hosts the continent’s worst gulags. Its transnational repression extends to the United States. Here, Eritrean diplomats extort a tax on emigres by holding relatives in Eritrea hostage under threat of torture and imprisonment. In all but formal designation, Eritrea is a state sponsor of terrorism, sowing instability across the region.

For decades, there was consensus across administrations and in the State Department: Eritrea would remain a pariah, at least until Isaias was gone. There was little Washington could do to hasten that day, however, since Eritrea’s economy is so underdeveloped. In 2022, U.S. imports from Eritrea totaled just $346,000, half the cost of an average house in Arlington, Virginia.


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From time to time, the State Department releases granular “integrated country strategies.” In May 2022, the State Department’s Eritrea team reported on the imposition of Magnitsky Act sanctions, described as a policy of “disciplined confrontation” to push back on Eritrean disinformation, isolate the country regionally, and limit engagement with regime officials. Indeed, in a culture in which any excuse is embraced to talk to adversaries, the Eritrean strategy was a breath of fresh air for its recognition that, sometimes, refusal to engage is also a diplomatic tool. It emphasized that America’s primary objective should be to support Eritrea’s next generation and to prepare for the post-Isaias era. American diplomats also sought to broaden religious freedom in the country, as Isaias recognizes only a handful of religious denominations and represses those not state-sanctioned.

Alas, in November 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken approved a new country strategy for Eritrea watering down everything to which he had agreed before. Bottom line: He now embraces State Department wishful thinking and pabulum to justify cooperating with the Isaias regime. His policy now laments that the absence of U.S. government funding for Eritrea undermines its efforts to promote democracy and reform. The implication? Scale back sanctions and work with Isaias. This has never worked. Wishing away malignant ideologies does not make dictators embrace liberty. Remember then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Russia reset? North Korea expanded its gulags against the backdrop of Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s outreach. Executions inside Iran skyrocketed during the reign of every so-called reformist president. When the U.S. loosened sanctions on Cuba under President Barack Obama, the Communist regime cracked down on nascent private enterprises to get larger hard currency shares. Whitewashing Turkey and Azerbaijan only strengthened the hand of their dictators and both regimes’ tilts toward Russia.


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The new strategy also urges Washington to emphasize its commonalities with Asmara and its idea that the problems hence far have been Isaias’s unawareness of possible shared interests is naive. Its calls to work with the Isaias regime to establish civil society is laughable, akin to basing a 1930s-era policy on working with Josef Stalin to foster religious liberty and free markets. To view Eritrea’s supposed withdrawal from Tigray and other Ethiopian regions as reason for optimism is akin to embracing Hamas because its terrorists returned to Gaza after their orgy of rape, kidnapping, and murder during their brief invasion of southern Israel.

As Blinken approaches his third anniversary as secretary, he cannot blame failings on predecessors. He lifted sanctions on the Houthis and ended maximum pressure on Iran. He botched the Afghan withdrawal. He believed Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev’s promises, setting the stage for the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Christians from Nagorno-Karabakh. He was already the most naive secretary of state since Frank Kellogg outlawed war just a decade before World War II erupted. With Blinken’s naive approach to Eritrea, however, he has surpassed Kellogg’s naivete. Kellogg at least learned from his failures. Blinken is incapable. He has transformed American diplomacy into a laughing stock while condemning millions of Eritreans who deserve much more.

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