Black leaders back U.S. role in Somalia Policy shift seen as long in coming OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 11, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Black American leaders and intellectuals are giving U.S policy in Somalia broad support -- backing they call unprecedented for U.S. military action abroad in the post-World War II era.

Although the image of U.S. Marines on African shores raises for some the specter of neocolonialism, black leaders hope the use of military power to feed starving Africans will mark a turning point in U.S. foreign policy.

"Does this set a new precedent for the involvement of U.S. troops? If this is truly a new world order, perhaps the answer is yes," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat and the newly elected head of the Congressional Black Caucus. "It may be the kind of shift in policy this world has awaited for a long time."

Civil rights activist Roger Wilkins said that by sending troops on a humanitarian mission to Somalia, the United States has "crossed a very important line" in its relations with Africa.

"Our policy-makers have deemed it to be in the national interest to intervene in Africa to do good for African people. I think that is quite wonderful," said Mr. Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Support for the U.S. role in Somalia ranges from political leaders such as Mr. Mfume, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks to thinkers such as Ronald Walters, the Howard University political scientist, and Molefi Kete Asante, a leading proponent of Afrocentric education.

"If the bottom line is to feed starving children, how can anyone feel that is not worthy?" asked poet Lucille Clifton, a professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Whatever can help that should be the world's concern, not just African-Americans'."

Still, black leaders say they will scrutinize U.S. actions for any signs of "neocolonialism." They will try to ensure that:

* The United States does not pull out of Somalia before its forces and diplomats have helped create conditions for long-term political stability.

* The United States does not overstay its welcome, suffer many casualties and install a puppet regime in Somalia.

Randall S. Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, an African-American lobbying group in Washington, said the United States should press for a national peace conference involving Somalian clan elders, militia chiefs and local leaders.

The U.S. history of Cold War support for corrupt African dictators, including Somalia's former leader Mohamed Siad Barre, led to the creation of "economic basket cases and human rights disasters" across the continent, Mr. Robinson said.

Now that legacy imbues the United States with a special responsibility to help build a lasting peace in Somalia, he said, as long as "any solution is crafted and implemented by Somalis."

Beneath the broad support for the U.S. military action lies some ambivalence.

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the huge Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Baltimore, said he is elated that, after 300,000 deaths, hungry Somalis will finally be fed. He said his congregation's entire Christmas Day offering would be donated

to Somalian relief.

But he said a distrust born of past U.S. military misadventures in the Third World and racism at home forces him to regard the intervention with skepticism.

Watching television coverage of the Marines' landing Tuesday night, Dr. Reid said, "I saw primarily white soldiers leading Somalis with their hands behind their heads.

"As an African-American who sees the same thing on the streets of our city and who has seen it historically, when you see the same picture in Somalia, it troubles you."

Similarly, Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam wrote that

she felt "an underlying unease, even distrust" about the U.S. intervention.

"Africa is pockmarked with the results of such ventures -- many undertaken in the name of religion and humanity," she wrote.

Others said their only ambivalence about the U.S. action was that, with thousands of African lives in the balance, it didn't come months earlier.

"This was something long overdue," said Mr. Hooks of the NAACP. "As I saw it, there was no end in sight. A million folk could starve, or 2 million. We couldn't sit idly by and do nothing."

Frank L. Morris Sr., graduate school dean at Morgan State University, said the U.S. commitment of troops had brought a sense of relief on campus.

"We can finally feel good about the use of U.S. military power," Dr. Morris said. "I had doubts there was enough concern in the U.S. to use the military to save African children.

"When Kuwait was overrun, our concern was not with Kuwait but with the African-Americans who would die for Western European and Japanese oil.

"This is a world of difference. Not since World War II have we been this proud of having our troops on the front lines."

Black leaders say they would prefer to see the civil war in Somalia, as an African problem, be solved by Africans led by the Organization of African Unity and the Arab League.

"As African-Americans, our community is sensitive to the fact that Africa as a continent does not have the political strength to handle this problem in-house," Dr. Reid said.

But they say the magnitude of Somalia's suffering pushed the issue onto the world stage. In this view, the lives being lost in Somalia are nomore exclusively an African issue than "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia is strictly an Eastern European one.

They stressed that the U.S. role should be limited -- to provide security to get food to the hungry and to assist the United Nations in fostering a political settlement.

"I still think it's an African problem to be solved by Africans," Dr. Walters said.

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