In her Letter to the Washington Post, U.S. Undersecretary Wendy R. Sherman chastised the editorial board for “mischaracterizing her remarks” in its May 1 editorial. At issue is what Ms. Sherman said and meant by her words during her press conference in Ethiopia on April 16.
I addressed that issue at length in my commentary “Wendy Sherman and the Ethiopian Election That Isn’t” earlier this week.
The editorial stated, “Wendy Sherman, declared during a visit to Addis Ababa on April 16 that ‘Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair and credible….’ Ms. Sherman’s lavish praise was particularly unjustified given Ethiopia’s record on press freedom…” The editorial provided specific instances of flagrant violations of human rights and evidence of unfair electoral tactics used by the ruling regime in Ethiopia.
In a pathetic attempt to backpedal on her patently untrue and ridiculously obsequious remarks about “Ethiopia is a young democracy”, Sherman accuses the Washington Post of journalistic unfairness and tries to reinvent herself as a covert champion of Ethiopian human rights.
I read Sherman’s Letter to the Post several times. Each time I read it, I became more confused. Is she saying that she did not say what she said about “Ethiopia as a young democracy” on camera? Is she saying she said what she said about the “young democracy” but did not mean what she said about it? Or is she saying she said what she said but what she said means the exact opposite of what she said she said?
In her Letter, Sherman claimed to have said “Ethiopia has a long road to full democracy, as I publicly said there. As President Obama suggested, my comments were aspirational in hopes that the upcoming election would be a step forward. Later in the trip, I said, ‘Ethiopia is a young country in terms of democracy and over time we hope the political system matures in a way that provides real choices for the people.’” She claimed to have “highlighted [the fact] that more journalists are in jail in Ethiopia than anywhere else in Africa. Civil society leaders told me, ‘They are about solving problems and being advocates for people who don’t believe they have a voice.’”
How could the Washington Post “mischaracterize” statements that allegedly occurred “later in her trip”?
The Post editorialized based on her videotaped remarks. She chose to talk to the press on camera. She made her statements voluntarily. She did not choose to provide the complete transcripts of her statements at the beginning, middle, end and “later in her trip” while she was in Ethiopia.
Now that Sherman has come under a torrent of withering criticism, public ridicule and condemnation, she wants to chocolate-cover and swallow her words.
The timeline of what Sherman said and when she said it is critical to determining the veracity of her belated claims surrounding her “expression of concern” and “mischaracterization of her remarks.”
Sherman claimed in her Letter that in her “meetings in Addis Ababa, I expressed concerns about restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists and use of antiterrorism legislation to stifle political dissent.”
Did she “express the concerns” before April 16, before she made her statement to the press? If so, why didn’t she mention the fact that she had “expressed concerns about restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists” at her press conference on April 16?” Aren’t these issues important enough to be mentioned together with “development” and “terrorism” in her press conference?
When she said she expressed concern “later in the trip”, does she mean that the subject of human rights was raised after she came under immediate and withering criticism on the 16th?
On April 16, 2015, the same day Sherman gave her press statement, Freedom House issued its own. “Ethiopia remains one of the most undemocratic countries in Africa. By calling these elections credible, Sherman has tacitly endorsed the Ethiopian government’s complete disregard for the democratic rights of its citizens. This will only bolster the government’s confidence to continue its crackdown on dissenting voices.”
Does Sherman use the phrase “later in the trip” to signify that she “expressed her concerns” after she had given the press statement?
In her videotaped press remarks on April 16, Sherman said she had “very wide-ranging discussion with the minister [Ethiopian “foreign minister” Tedros Adhanom] not only about the tremendous success here in Ethiopia, all of the development goals that have been met.” She did not mention a word about, “restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists and use of antiterrorism legislation to stifle political dissent.”
In a press statement posted on the U.S. Embassy Addis site dated April 17, it is reported Sherman said she “had an excellent meeting with the Prime Minister: and discussed ‘a whole range of issues, including the development of Ethiopia – its economic development, its security development and the needs as its continuing to develop its democracy.’” Not a single word is mentioned in the statement about “restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists and use of antiterrorism legislation to stifle political dissent.”
Sherman “discussed” all sorts of issues extensively with regime officials, but on the subject of “restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists and use of antiterrorism legislation to stifle political dissent”, she “expressed concern”.
But what exactly does “expressing concern” mean?
There is one word that drives me stir crazy when used in diplomatic parlance. That word is “concern.” What exactly does it mean to “express concern about restrictions on political space, arrests and imprisonments of independent journalists and use of antiterrorism legislation to stifle political dissent”?
For years, the U.S. State Department and the White House have used the word “concern” to talk about human rights violations in Ethiopia. I have compiled multiple dozens of such statements over the past ten years.
Exactly how does one “express concern” about the jailing of thousands of political prisoners, extrajudicial killings of thousands more, torture of untold numbers and widespread practices of other severe forms of political persecution?
Does “expressing concern” mean shedding crocodile tears about human rights violations?
Does it mean going through the motions of talking human rights?”
Does it mean play-talking human rights?
Does it mean lip servicing human rights?
Having studied dozens of U.S. policy statements using the phrase “express concern”, I have come to the conclusion that it means the exact opposite of what it says: “We don’t give a rat’s behind about human rights in Ethiopia.” (I expect to write a commentary on the use of that phrase by U.S. policy makers in discussing human rights in Ethiopia.)
I find it bizarre that Sherman should use up so much airtime condemning and criminalizing Ginbot 7 as a “terrorist” organization but has no time in her press conference to “express concern” about the terrifying crimes against humanity occurring every day in the “young Ethiopian democracy.”
Sherman did not say a single word about human rights, political prisoners or good governance in any of her public statements to the press. She now wants to convince us she said them all in private confessionals.
Should the Washington Post editorial board believe its lying eyes and deceiving ears and apologize to Sherman for “mischaracterizing” her statements?
Are claims of being “misquoted”, “mischaracterized”, “misreported” and “misinterpreted” the last refuge of mendacious and duplicitous politicians and diplomats?
I am grateful to Sherman for a very different reason. She will now be a case study of diplocrisy and menda-duplicity in my courses. For some time now, I have written about the human rights con games American diplomats and policy makers have played with the leaders of the Thugtatroship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front.
I coined the words “diplocrisy” (to describe the Obama Administration’s culture of diplomatic hypocrisy) and menda-duplicity (to describe their games of shameless mendacity and duplicity”). My students will now have an opportunity to study a real life example of diplocritic menda-duplicity and the deliberate and calculated use of diplomatic double-talk, double-speak, double-dealing and gobbledygook to mislead, misdirect, misguide, misinform and misrepresent facts to the public .
Sherman’s Letter to the Post adds injury to insult. She first insulted our intelligence by telling us “Ethiopia is a young democracy”. Now she inflicts injury to our intellectual capacity by treating us like imbeciles and morons. She asks us to believe what she said is not what she said; what we heard is not what we heard. Somebody needs to tell Sherman we are really not as dumb as we look!
Sherman could have put the whole thing to rest by simply saying, “I am sorry.”
But she can’t. Her arrogance won’t let her. Sherman reminds me of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I don’t remember all of the words but it has something to do with a “burden” of a “man” and how the “man” (or woman) should deal with “new-caught, sullen peoples” that are “half-devil and half-child.”
The fact of the matter is that Sherman’s videotaped remarks are available for anyone to view, read and judge. She can spin doctor it all she wants. But her words are her words. The honorable thing for her to do now is swallow her pride and eat her words by issuing an apology.
For the record this is what Sherman said in her videotaped remarks to the press:
I came from the G-7 meeting in Lubeck, Germany and I was very glad to have a very wide-ranging discussion with the minister [Ethiopian “foreign minister” Tedros Adhanom] not only about the tremendous success here in Ethiopia, all of the development goals that have been met. Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent. Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible open and inclusive in ways Ethiopia has moved forward in strengthening its democracy every time there is an election. It gets better and better.
We also discussed all of the threats and concerns in the region which was also a major topic of conversation at the G-7 meeting as well. So whether that is strengthening Somalia or dealing with the threat in Ethiopia, everything from Al Shabbab to Boko Haram, Daesh, to of course Al Qaeda and indeed have discussed the reality that here from the Ethiopian perspective as well as concerns about all of those terrorists groups that Ethiopia considers Ginbot 7 a terrorist group as well. The United States believes no group, including Ginbot 7 should attempt to overthrow or speak of overthrowing a democratically elected government. And we look forward to continuing our work with the Ethiopian government to address these concerns in very serious and appropriate ways.
The world is facing a lot these days and Ethiopia is a very strong and growing country; and we want to make sure the stability, peace and the security and growing prosperity continue. And we look forward to our very strong partnership building all the platforms that we need to meet these threats, meet these concerns with all of the seriousness they deserve…
[Responding to a (reporter’s?) question] We think elections are very important…. Voting is important. I urge all Ethiopians to vote on your election day. But I was also glad to be here because in many ways Ethiopia is a young democracy and so every election, just as in our country, should be better and better and more open allowing for freedom of access making sure that every election is fair, free and credible and that opposition groups have the space to participate, that everybody’s vote counts. And in our country we make every election better than the last one in being inclusive, making sure everybody’s rights are respected and we know Ethiopia is working to do that as well. (Emphasis added.)
“What a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.”