WASHINGTON — Washington-- ONE OF MY favorite historical figures by far is the Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia. He ranks down there, next to Rasputin, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Attila the Hun. A lot of people thought he was mad; we know he was mad.
Indeed, in 1868, as he holed up in his Ethiopian Valhalla fortress in the wild mountains of his beautiful country, he took 30 British and Europeans hostage, holding them against the onslaught of an oncoming British invasion force.
One night before the queen's army arrived, Theodore, his eyes rolling in their accustomed manner, went down to visit his prisoners in their dungeon. "You know," he told them, "I used to hear that I was called a madman for my acts, but I never believed it; now, however, after my conduct toward you, I have come to the conclusion that I am really so."
That same madness seems to have traveled down through history even to this age, residing most recently in Mengistu Haile Mariam.
When Paul Henze, the prominent scholar on the Middle East and Africa, visited Mengistu this winter, he found the little colonel who ruled Ethiopia from 1974 until last week tense and angry. Like Theodore, he was "misunderstood."
"Everyone is very unfair, saying I'm a violent person," Mengistu told Henze. "I am not. My opponents forced me into being violent. The guerrillas in the Horn of Africa forced me." He paused here. He was obviously miffed. "Why," he went on, "I wouldn't step on a crawling creature!"
The miffed little colonel finally abandoned his stricken capital last week, sure, like Theodore, that the world little understood his impulses and imperatives. As a matter of fact, the world by now understands him rather too well.
The world could count. He left 10,000 dead in his purifying "Red Terror" of 1974 and 1975 (all to bring about Ethiopian "socialism"). He left at least 500,000 dead in the 30-year-old war of the Eritrean and Tigrean guerrilla movements (all to keep Ethiopia one -- and his). Finally, as his last gift, he left 5 million to 6 million Ethiopians even today on the verge of starving to death, while he spent 70 percent of what budget there was on military toys and hardware.
In the end, the soldiers of this great Ethiopian army, beaten back by the small but incredibly stubborn rebels of the three guerrilla groups of the coalition Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, staggered and straggled back into Addis Ababa. Many were wounded, and heads were bowed. It was a dazed end to the Great Ethiopian Experience with socialism, which had become in Mengistu's 17 years perhaps the classic Third World example of Marxist disaster and degradation.
What does the demise of Mengistu, who fled to exile in Kenya last week, mean to the world? Are there any lessons here? Or does it -- strangest of all, but in keeping with Theodore's strange heritage -- perhaps mean very little in the post-Cold War era?
First, we can say surely that Mengistu's violent pseudo-Marxist way from "feudalism-to-socialism" was marked by nothing but disaster. In the end, even his Russian and Cuban patrons had withdrawn, mutely acknowledging the futility of all those years and all that money gone only to create eternal bloodshed (the "end-of-Third-World-socialism" syndrome).
We can also say that the United States came out of the whole Ethiopian tragedy quite well. In Ethiopia, we were relatively uninvolved in the Cold War minuet of countering "their" surrogates with ours. The support of the three coastal guerrilla movements was left almost totally to sympathetic Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia.
American actions were restricted to the enormous famine relief efforts of the past six years and to the convening of the peace conference, between the "government" and the guerrillas, which starts this week in London (the "good-American" syndrome).
Finally, we can only speculate -- and not necessarily hopefully -- on the future. The three guerrilla movements, largely from the northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea, have accomplished an astonishing feat. From tiny populations and peripheral provinces, they have defeated an army that at one time numbered 300,000 and was Africa's largest (the "you-never-know" syndrome).
Ethiopia's future could be bright. Its more than 50 million people are able and industrious, its land rich. But if whoever rules Ethiopia next continues Theodore's and Mengistu's madness, it is not only possible that things could get worse, but probable that the entire world this time will simply slam the door on it. (That is what we now call in foreign policy the "Liberian" syndrome. When Liberia tore itself into pieces in its gruesome little civil war last year, nobody came -- and nobody cared.)
That, even after all the bloodshed, is what the Ethiopias of the world need to fear next.