The humanitarian illusion

Caleb Carr

September 17, 1993|By Caleb Carr

GEN. Mohammed Farah Aidid again showed he would stop at nothing when he sent women and children amid his henchmen into Mogadishu streets to attack members of the United Nations force last week.

The U.N. troops, faced with a physical threat that overrode complex moral considerations, fired back, killing perhaps 100 civilians and moving the troubled U.N. intervention in Somalia to the brink of disaster. And Wednesday Somali gunmen shot and killed two Italian soldiers.

Only two routes offer hope of changing the deplorable status quo: increased control by the military forces or speedy withdrawal.

As always, the United States will lead the way in making this choice; its decision will have enormous implications for U.S. policy in other parts of the world.

The United States and United Nations entered Somalia believing they could direct the combat troops to ignore the political situation and pursue an extra-military -- that is, extra-political -- end: the distribution of humanitarian aid. The U.N. forces established famine as the enemy, not the gangs of such #F warlords as General Aidid and Gen. Mohammed Said Hersi, who also known as General Morgan.

The coalition was unwilling or unable to recognize that famine in Somalia is not a natural disaster; it is a policy orchestrated by the clan leaders to preserve their power and to destroy Somalis who will not join their sides. Recognition of this fact came too late in the international effort and acknowledgment of its implications is proving just as tardy.

We now hunt General Aidid like the criminal he has always been; yet our delay in beginning that hunt, our willingness to seat him and the other gang leaders at an internationally sanctioned peace conference in Addis Ababa earlier this year, have given him the time, media attention and the setting in which to portray himself as a legitimate leader.

Seizing General Aidid, General Morgan and other gang leaders and disarming their followers should have been the first order of business. If our troops are to stay, we should pursue that goal more aggressively. If famine remains the enemy, its agents must be quickly and severely stopped.

Many in the West are uncomfortable with such an approach, echoing General Aidid's inevitable claim that it amounts to colonialism. That may be so, but it is also the only cure for Somalia's ills. Proof is evident all over the country, notably in towns such as Baardheere, where Marines quickly established a weapons-free zone, neutralized the gangs and helped the citizens rebuild their lives. This is colonialism, no doubt -- but, after all, the local leaders were the agents of famine and disease.

Should the U.N. troops leave Somalia now, we can expect manmade disasters to return in full force. Retreat would be a practical choice. But we ought to acknowledge honestly where retreat would lead. U.S. and U.N. leaders seem unwilling to abandon Somalia to such a fate. The military seems to be increasing its efforts to disarm the gangs and to jail leaders who, like General Aidid, obstruct the path to an effective solution to Somalia's troubles.

The U.N. leadership is not swayed by their accusations of imperialism. If the multinational force moves with heightened vigor, Somalia could be a U.N. protectorate within the year.

Freed from the fighting, U.N. officials could see whether there are leaders who care more about Somalis than personal power. If not, the protectorate status would have to be extended until such leaders emerged. That might take months -- or years.

Are all the countries in the U.N. force ready for such a delay and commitment? Domestic signals indicate that they may not be -- and the conclusion of these debates, most importantly the one getting under way in Washington, will be crucial.

For the consequences of Somalia extend far beyond the fate of that nation and beyond troubled Africa. In U.S. foreign policy, they encompass the long overdue recognition that military intervention cannot be non-political.

If we send U.S. and U.N. forces abroad because of a humanitarian crisis, we will come into conflict with political leaders who are not capably addressing that crisis or are abetting it.

Before going in, we must determine the legitimacy of those leaders and whether we are prepared to remove them. Such a policy shift would have regional implications, not only in the developing world but more importantly in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian-Serb-Croat conflict is not a natural disaster or a humanitarian crisis. It is a crude display of power politics that drags on because the factional leaders and their followers care more about winning than showing mercy to innocent civilians.

In deciding whether to intervene in any way in that conflict, we must ask ourselves questions we did not grapple with before the start of the Somali expedition: Do we accept the legitimacy of the leaders of the conflict? Do we believe that the ethnic and religious basis of their dispute is valid grounds for war and slaughter?

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