America's vital interest in Somalia is compassion


December 11, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Maybe we should have given the food to the media and le them take it to Somalia. It seems like they outnumber our troops anyway.

On second thought that wouldn't have worked.

The photographers would have taken pictures of the food. And the anchormen would have eaten it.

So I guess we need the military after all. Though they did seem like props on the first night they waded ashore at Mogadishu.

Navy Seals, heavily armed and their faces covered in camouflage paint, were surrounded by TV crews wearing shorts and T-shirts.

The Seals were angry and I don't blame them. The Seals were taking this thing very seriously.

They thought they were military men on a mission. But they soon learned that to the media they were just pictures. And it was hard to maintain that sense of gravity that usually accompanies invasions.

You would see a Marine squad scurry to set up a machine gun, unpack belts of ammo and tensely scan the rooftops for snipers.

Then in the same place, at the same moment, you would see a camera crew saunter by. It tended to take away a lot of the drama, though it did produce some extraordinary footage.

Maybe we should have anticipated that. This is, after all, an extraordinary mission:

The U.S. military is invading a country in order to save lives and not take them.

And when people ask why America still needs a military, I'd like to be able to say: To save starving people like we did in Somalia.

The main argument against our military intervention in Somalia is that if we do it in Somalia we have to do it everywhere. And we are not equipped to do it everywhere.

I have two answers to this: First, we don't have to do it everywhere. We can pick and choose. Somalia is not a policy. It is an emergency relief effort.

"The fact that we can't do everything in the world," Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said, "certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't do anything in the world."

Second, what is wrong with using our military to bring enough order and discipline to get people fed?

People say our military is not equipped for social service tasks, but imposing order and discipline is exactly what military forces are equipped to do.

Three months ago I wrote: "How come we are talking about U.S. military intervention to end the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina // when we have ignored civil wars in Africa for years? Is there something about European lives that make them more special to us than African lives?"

I thought we might let African lives continue to slip away. Happily, we are not.

L Though, inevitably, some now ask: Why Africa and not Europe?

The answer is chiefly practical: The warring factions in what was formerly Yugoslavia are heavily armed, relatively well-organized, highly motivated and fighting in complicated terrain.

Somalia is an easier fight (and, so far, not much of a fight at all). We are opposed by outgunned, badly organized troops and unorganized teen-agers. And our goal is short-term: Impose enough order to get food to people and allow United Nations troops to take over.

But wait, the critics say, we do not have a national interest in Somalia.

I disagree. It is in America's interests to show compassion and to alleviate suffering where we are able to.

It is in America's interests to show the world we will send our troops to feed a starving child even if there is no oil we can get in return.

We cannot help everyone everywhere.

We cannot help anyone forever.

But we can help some people, for some amount of time, in some places.

And that is what we are doing.

Some people fear we will be trapped in Somalia. And they ask: How do we get out.

The answer is easy: By boat.

If our efforts in Somalia do not go as planned, we are not committed to pouring more troops into that country. If Vietnam taught us anything it taught us that it is sometimes better to cut your losses than plunge deeper and deeper into an abyss.

But right now we are doing the right thing at the right time in the right place.

For decades, America has been trying to show the world how great we are.

Now, in Somalia, we can show the world how good we are.

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