Louise Woodroofe. Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: The United States, the Horn of Africa, and the Demise of Detente. New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations Series: Kent: Kent State University Press, 2013. vii + 168 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-184-0.
Reviewed by Charlie Thomas (Air University, eSchool of Graduate PME)
Published on H-War (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
By the mid-1970s, the foreign policy of the United States toward its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, was undergoing a transformation. The opening of American relations with China, the ending of the Vietnam War, and the increasing strain between the United States and the Soviet Union had created an opening for new dialogue and new ways of conceptualizing the global order. Even though they still viewed all actions through the lens of competition with the Soviets, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations began to search for an understanding with their foes, beginning the process of what would be called détente. However, despite several promising initiatives like the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (or SALT II) and the potential for further improvement in relations, by 1979 détente had lost all credibility as a concept. Louise Woodroofe’s volume traces the internal arguments and external events—primarily political and military conflicts in the Ogaden region—that both fostered the concept of détente within the American government and eventually caused it to fail.
Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden is an ambitious volume. In his introduction, Woodroofe lays out five major arguments that he deals with within the book’s slim 137 pages, with the remainder of the volume taken up with endnotes, bibliography, and index. He argues that the Horn of Africa served as the central test case for détente in the eyes of the US government, that the Horn of Africa was essentially the schoolhouse for foreign policy for President Jimmy Carter, that the case of the Horn showed to the United States that the Soviet Union would not abide by the agreements of détente, that the United States could not move beyond a bipolar competition conception of the Cold War, and that ultimately intervention in the Horn of Africa would be a terrible failure for all involved. Despite asserting these arguments in the introduction, Woodroofe never directly references them within the text. Instead, he implicitly addresses these issues throughout, often approaching them through the lens of the arguments between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski as well as the evolution of Carter’s overall policy from Vance’s conciliation to Brzezinski’s hard-line viewpoint.
This evolution of arguments and policy is dealt with in five central chapters which trace the critical five years of policy and intervention in the Horn from 1974 to 1978. The initial chapter begins before the Carter presidency, when Gerald Ford’s new administration was faced with the crisis of the overthrow of longtime US ally Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. With Ford’s attempt to refocus the United States’ policy toward the developing world, no real policy was put into place for dealing with the emergent military regime, leading to a drift in policy that would extend into the Carter administration. Chapter 2 picks up with Carter’s accession to office and his foreign policy team coming to grips with the severe human rights crisis occurring in Ethiopia as the new military regime began bloody campaigns of repression both within its own ranks and as part of the counterinsurgency campaign against Eritrean separatists. In the midst of this crisis are also the seeds of political realignment as a possibly marginalized Ethiopia reached out to Russia for aid while their Somali rivals received arms from the United States shortly before their 1977 invasion to reclaim the Ogaden.
Chapter 3 involves the Carter administration losing the thread of its policy in the Horn as it refused to commit to supporting Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia. This lays the groundwork for Ethiopia’s eventual triumph in the Ogaden War, when Russia and Cuba offered massive supplies of arms and troops to Ethiopia. The crisis this triggered is discussed in chapter 4, where the arguments between Vance and Brzezinski infused the United States’ response to the Soviet intervention with deeper meaning. Soviet aid was seen by Brzezinski as a sign that the Soviets cannot be trusted to abide by détente and as such all the fruits of détente, such as the still un-ratified SALT II treaty, were discredited. Essentially, the outcome of a small regional struggle had quickly become linked to the overall foreign policy of a Cold War superpower. Finally, chapter 5 discusses the disastrous outcome of a final meeting between Carter and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on the issue of the Ethiopian intervention, driving a final nail in the coffin of both the SALT II treaty and détente as a concept.
Woodroofe offers an interesting and well-sourced narrative of the fall of détente as a pillar of US foreign policy and the role that the Ethiopian-Somali conflict over the Ogaden played in its failure. Throughout she consistently re-engages the central arguments advanced by Vance and Brzezinski and contextualizes these arguments not only with the events in the Horn but also in other parts of the developing world. By the book’s completion, Woodroofe has offered solid support for her initial five arguments and also set the stage for a discussion of the next phase of the Cold War following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, this is not to say that the book is without flaws. While the arguments are implicitly addressed, the slender nature of the volume means that the internal arguments of Carter’s inner circle are essentially the sole means by which they are dealt with. While Woodroofe provides a good historiography at the outset to offer broader and alternative discussions of the events, a few additional viewpoints from other parts of the administration or other parties involved in the conflict would have been welcome. This same focus on US sources is also apparent with minor errors dealing with the African actors, such as her claims that Cuba and Russia had initially supported the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which is only true in perhaps the most technical sense and never took on any concrete form.
Overall, Woodroofe’s book offers a well-sourced if narrow narrative on a very understudied period of US foreign relations. It also does a useful job of illustrating the United States’ attempt to change and broaden its engagement in the global Cold War and the ultimate failure of its leadership to see beyond its Soviet rival. For scholars of US foreign relations, this book will serve as an excellent addition to their libraries and help expand their understanding of the failure of détente and its related projects. For academics more interested in the global Cold War or the African perspectives on the Ogaden conflict, Woodroofe’s book will serve as an excellent companion piece to Gebru Tareke’s The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa (2009), which examines many of the same dynamics but from the viewpoint of the Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean actors who fought the war that doomed détente.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Charlie Thomas. Review of Woodroofe, Louise, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: The United States, the Horn of Africa, and the Demise of Detente.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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