Black Caucus cautious about furor over Somalia

October 08, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell and Karen Hosler | John B. O'Donnell and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Black Caucus was quick to praise the humanitarian mission to Somalia when President George Bush announced it in December.

But it took Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, the caucus chairman, more than two days to say anything about the chorus of cries for a U.S. withdrawal that followed the weekend battle in Mogadishu that left 13 Americans dead and scores wounded. Shortly after President Clinton finished speaking last evening, the Baltimore congressman finally made public comments, saying the caucus supported the president's actions.

The caucus' statement, originally planned for Wednesday, was delayed 24 hours in the hope of influencing administration policy, Mr. Mfume said. He said Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, represented the caucus when the congressional leadership met with Mr. Clinton yesterday morning.

But for Mr. Mfume and other blacks in Congress, Somalia poses a new, and unusually ticklish, problem. For the first time, U.S. soldiers are serving -- and dying -- in a black African nation. And that has put the traditional "dovishness" of black elected officials into sharp conflict with their concern for the well-being of thousands of ordinary Somalian citizens.

"Blacks have been rather reluctant to send U.S. troops abroad," said Kenneth Longmyer, a retired foreign service officer and director of international affairs at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank concerned with black affairs. " 'Who appointed us to be the world's policeman?' is rhetoric I've heard since I was a child."

But a U.S. pullout, the Clinton administration has warned, could lead to a return of the famine that threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis. For that reason, those black politicians who have spoken out thus far have urged the Clinton administration to avoid the temptation to "cut and run."

Mr. Mfume said he was pleased that the United States was not planning an immediate pullout. He also welcomed the president's emphasis on finding "an African solution for an African problem" and the shift away from the "obsession" with capturing Somalian warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid.

"We got involved for all the right reasons and then got distracted for all the wrong reasons," Mr. Mfume said, alluding to the U.S. decision to try to capture General Aidid.

Mr. Mfume conceded that there are differences among the members of the "diverse" caucus on some aspects of the policy toward Somalia.

Only a few of the 40 black members of Congress have spoken out and their statements have been drowned out by others, many of them Republicans, calling for a U.S. withdrawal.

Mr. Dellums, a California Democrat, said the question of how to respond to the situation in Somalia is "a very sensitive issue" for the Black Caucus because Somalia is a black African nation. As one of the most senior blacks in Congress, Mr. Dellums said he found himself in a particularly difficult role because many of his colleagues were calling on him for advice.

Some black lawmakers fear that there may be a racial motivation behind the criticism of the U.S. mission to Somalia, which is being undertaken at the direction of the United Nations. And they worry about whether the widespread revulsion over the TV images of black Somalis dragging the body of a white American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu might have racial overtones.

"A number of black Americans are wondering if the outcry would have been as great if the soldier dragged through the street had been black," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate who represents Washington.

But Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, a member of the Black Caucus, disagrees. "If racism were a concern, it would be manifested in a desire for greater military involvement -- for retribution and revenge," said Mr. Wynn, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Black Caucus' delay in issuing a statement about Somalia "reflects a certain degree of maturity," he said. "You don't have a lot of yahooism on the part of caucus members." Rather, he said, the group took its time to weigh a complex international problem and to consult with the president.

Before the president's speech, Ms. Norton noted that there was "no support in Congress for remaining in Somalia two more minutes. The best thing the president can do is pack our bags and figure out how best to turn the humanitarian mission over to an all-African force under the U.N."

"It is a fact that this country hasn't shown a lot of concern and come to the aid of many countries in Africa," she said. "It did a magnificent, humanitarian job in Somalia, but I think a lot of people in the African-American community wouldn't think too highly of it if we were to pull out immediately now."

For freshman Rep. Mel Reynolds of Illinois, the decision on Somalia is much more of a U.S. foreign policy question than a Black Caucus issue.

But he added: "Having a black constituency that pays much closer attention to this than it might to . . . events in Russia means I have to be sure I know what's going on."

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