From 'Restore Hope' to 'Quickdraw'

March 27, 1994

As the last American troops departed Mogadishu Friday, there were no delegations of well-wishers, no displays of thanks for a humanitarian mission that had literally saved tens of thousands of Somalis from starvation. In military parlance, this was dubbed "Quickdraw," an accurate term to describe a withdrawal in a swarm of helicopters and amphibious craft to prevent incident or casualty.

How different a scene it was from 16 months ago, when troops assigned to "Operation Restore Hope" landed on the beaches in the bizarre glare of TV floodlights. Then Somalis greeted them as friends and saviors. No more. There may be regrets among those to whom the Americans meant jobs or petty trade or survival, but the general feeling -- both ways -- is good riddance.

What went wrong? How could a mission so selfless, so well-meaning, have gone so sour? As a nation we should not put Somalia out of mind but try to learn its lessons -- lessons that

may provide guidance for finding our way in a strange world beset by ethnic struggles and regional conflicts that defy our best efforts.

Perhaps the Somalia mission was doomed from the beginning. It was ordered as a last hurrah by a lame duck president, George Bush, who felt that television pictures of walking Somali skeletons had aroused a public opinion mandate for intervention. FTC It was carried on and escalated by a new president, Bill Clinton, who had talked loftily in his campaign of American troops under United Nations command taking on all kinds of tasks in the name of global stability and doing good.

But in the hot reality of Somalia, American forces soon found themselves caught in a web of disarray, cross-purposes and misunderstanding. While progress was being made in the countryside to get people fed and crops planted, Mogadishu became a battle zone of clan rivalries. While American G.I.s found themselves in unhappy transition from friend to foe, their higher-ups grievously misjudged Somali politics and culture.

The key U.N. mistake, in which the U.S. too easily acquiesced, was to take sides and oppose the dominant warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, not realizing that in the end any solution had to have General Aidid's assent. A series of nasty firefights culminated in the loss of 18 soldiers during an ill-conceived attempt to capture the general in early October. Mr. Clinton's response was to set a time certain for American withdrawal, a step that might induce the warlords to stop fighting but could as easily bring back chaos and famine.

The longer-range implication of the Somalia affair is to reduce public support for overseas military entanglement just as the North Korea crisis worsens and Bosnia is in need of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers. The president knows that American support essential if the U.N. is to fulfill humanitarian, peace-enforcement or non-proliferation missions. But the Somalia experience is likely to complicate his policy-making for a long, long time.

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