U.S. moved slowly toward unusual intervention Thousands died as officials debated

December 06, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It took months for the United States to get to the point of compelling extraordinary intervention in Somalia.

Thousands of Somalis -- mostly women and children -- died in the meantime.

The pressure in Washington intensified in July, when Kansas Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum returned from Somalia convinced that the United Nations effort to feed the starving was a failure.

Lobbying Congress and top Bush administration officials, she pushed for military force to bolster food deliveries regardless of whether Somali warlords consented.

For the next three months, President Bush, the U.N. Security Council and private relief organizations wrestled with the tragedy until they developed the most militarized relief mission in U.N. history.

With Somali deaths from civil warfare, starvation and disease mounting to the current rate of 3,000 a day, relief shipments became worse than a colossal waste: Looted food was sold to buy weapons, accelerating a disaster that 28,000 U.S. troops will now try to end.

A number of factors contributed to the delay: a rigid, slow-moving U.N. bureaucracy; Bush administration divisions and preoccupation with the election; competing crises; fickle news media interest; and initial opposition from relief organizations to using force.

Perhaps overriding was a Washington tendency to proceed gradually and avoid committing major force until all other avenues had been tried and failed.

"You can't jump in with 30,000 troops at first notice. You have to try the normal routes first," a senior administration official said, pointing out that the United States had already committed more than $190 million in aid to Somalia before this week.

The United Nations itself waited a year after the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991 before getting involved in a major way, prodding the disintegrating nation's two chief warlords into a cease-fire and negotiations. And it wasn't until late July that the Security Council approved an emergency airlift.

Under pressure from African nations that had helped catapult him into leadership of the world agency, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali embarrassed the Security Council into action by accusing it of giving short shrift to Somalia in favor of a "rich man's war" in the Balkans.

By then, an estimated 30 percent of Somalis were starving.

At the same time, Mrs. Kassebaum, the ranking Republican on a Senate African affairs panel, pressed for military muscle to guard relief deliveries, even then subject to looting and demands for protection payments by rival gangs of teen-age thugs.

Sending troops involved risk, she told a House committee July 23, "but I think it is a risk worth taking."

She drew support from within the Bush administration but not an immediate endorsement of her proposal. The United Nations was in the driver's seat, and U.S. officials were divided over how hard to push it, over-stretched as it was with peace keeping operations around the globe, a Senate staff member said.

Administration officials deny any conscious decision to delay tougher action until after the election.

Such a move would have opened Mr. Bush to charges that he was manufacturing a foreign crisis, an administration official says, but it might have been a political gain nonetheless: "How better to illustrate that U.S. leadership is required in the world and that he is the best person to exercise it?"

While the White House clearly was preoccupied with the campaign, there was a belief in the weeks before the election that food was flowing without disastrous breakdown.

At that time as well, relief organizations, some of them of a pacifist bent, opposed military action. And news media attention, always a factor in official decision-making here, was episodic.

"Our relief groups knew there was starvation, and that a lot of people were going to die, at this time last year. In the spring, there were large numbers," says Karen Donovan of Inter-Action, an umbrella group of relief organizations. "I couldn't believe the press hadn't covered it."

So the United States moved ahead in stages. President Bush approved a military relief airlift in mid-August to bypass the bandits. A month later, after planes were shot at, the United States sent Marines off the coast to provide command and control for airlift planes.

The United Nations, despite agreeing to send 3,500 troops in two stages, remained locked in a peacekeeping role. This meant that it had to secure agreement from armed factions on the ground for peacekeepers to be deployed and that the troops would not be heavily armed.

Only the first contingent, of 500 Pakistani troops, ever arrived, flown in by the United States. The rest were held up by the United Nations' inability to get agreement from Somalian warlords. The U.N. bureaucracy, meanwhile, was gripped by infighting between its envoy in Somalia and officials at its headquarters in New York.

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