Somalia illustrates the perils of abandoning a country to its own fate. More than a decade after the United States pulled out a peacekeeping operation, the nation has come back to haunt America.
Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia allegedly having ideological affinity, if not ties, with Al Qaeda have recently taken over, forcing the Bush Administration to frantically summon an international conference to discuss its future.
If only the United States had shown this concern a decade ago. Instead, its policy for the last ten years or so has consisted of little more than arming “secular” warlords battling Islamists for control. Ironically, the Washington Post reports that some of these warlords had fought the United States in the early ‘90s!
The failed approach of giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to these warlords has led to fingerpointing within the Bush Administration, with the Foggy Bottom crowd blaming the CIA for the fiasco. It turns out the policy may even have been strategically counterproductive, with the U.S. backing of the warlords acting as a catalyst for the Islamists to band together and strike harder.
As the Los Angeles Times points out, the support for the warlords is also quite certainly a violation of a U.N. arms embargo on Somalia, with John Bolton’s denial that the United States was supplying arms to the warlords an escape hatch implying that the United States was giving them money to buy the arms themselves instead.
Setting aside the multiple failings of financing such dubious characters with U.S. taxpayer money, the question is why alternative approaches weren’t tried—approaches that could actually have benefited the Somali people.
“U.S. officials and those from other governments throughout the region uniformly have told me that long-term counterterrorism objectives can be achieved only by U.S. investment in the Somali peace process,” writes John Prendergast, a former Clinton official, in a recent op-ed. “Yet the State Department has just one full-time political officer working on Somalia—from neighboring Kenya, and he was just transferred out of the region for dissenting from the policy on proxy warlords.”
There is a touch of hypocrisy in Prendergast’s admonition. After all, it was the Clinton Administration that started the process of abandonment after the 1993 killing of 18 U.S. servicemen (made famous by the book and movie “Black Hawk Down”). Still, his contention about the foolishness of supporting the warlords is valid and has been supported by others, including Kofi Annan.
“I would not have supported the warlords,” Annan said. “I don't think I would have recommended the United Nations or the Security Council supporting the warlords.”
U.S. responsibility for the anarchy that reigned in Somalia for the past decade and a half goes beyond mere neglect. As Professor Stephen Zunes pointed out in a piece a few years ago, the United States exacerbated the civil war there by supplying hundreds of millions of dollars in arms to dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, in spite of his policies that helped destroy Somalia.
“What you are seeing,” Congressman Howard Wolpe, a former professor of African politics, observed at the time, “is a general indifference to a disaster that we played a role in creating.”
When the Clinton Administration’s mission got into hot water (Zunes provides analysis as to why), it decided to ditch not only Somalia, but the whole of Africa. The Somalia debacle had a major part to play in President Clinton’s refusal to allow U.N. intervention to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Somalia certainly isn’t the most prominent example of a country deserted by the United States coming back to bother it later. That distinction belongs to Afghanistan. But even the Taliban fiasco doesn’t seem to have taught the United States a basic lesson: If you contemptuously blank out a country after paying short-term attention to it, it will bedevil you as a “failed state.” What the United States needs to do instead in such places is to patiently invest in a nation-building effort consisting of support for the formation of stable, democratic governments, coupled with the provision of aid. But even the Somalia and Afghanistan examples won’t lead to an adoption of such an approach. The United States seems to be incapable of learning from its mistakes.