Goodbye to Somalia

March 02, 1995

The Somalis are on their own. In an eerie replay, American Marines landed at Mogadishu, but only to secure the evacuation of the last 2,500 Bangladeshi and Pakistani peace-keepers. After spending $2 billion, 30 percent of it American, and loss of 140 lives, 42 of them American, the United Nations is washing its hands of Somalia.

To most of the world, this is good riddance. To most Somalis, it is a return to the recent past. They are left to the mercies of men with guns, the ragtag clan armies that shoot each other, extort what can be extorted and impose starvation for profit.

Operation Restore Hope, when the first U.S. Marines waded into an army of television cameramen on Dec. 9, 1992, has not restored hope. What is lost in most of the post mortems is that as originally defined, the mission succeeded spectacularly. It was meant to feed people and save lives. In the estimate of former Assistant Secretary of State Chester A. Crocker, it saved a half-million of them. Somalians today are fed. Crops are sown. The country again exports bananas and cattle.

But mission creep set in. Suddenly the purpose was to end anarchy and restore order in which democracy might grow. This failed spectacularly. U.N. civil servants, emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the success of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, thought all things were possible. Few were.

The U.S. set out to capture the worst clan warlord and wound up a belligerent in clan fighting. American opinion withered as quickly as the original charitable impulse had sprouted. By March 1994, U.S. troops had departed, their places taken by others in blue U.N. helmets. The clan militias survived.

As the peace-keepers now leave, the peace of Somalia is not kept. The clans are fighting. If all that these armed young men did was slay each other, Somalia could survive. But before the GIs came in 1992, clan thugs had hijacked much of the food supply, holding people to extortion for food. This may happen again.

The disappointments of the Somalia expedition have lowered the American people's belief in a well-intentioned mission. The winds in Congress are blowing not only against sending American troops, but against paying for peace-keepers. In time, this mood may diminish. But the U.S. remains uncertain about its role.

The Somali people, who have not yet attained a civil society or nation-state, had better be warned. If conditions deteriorate to what they were in December 1992, the Yanks are not coming. Except for a few nongovernmental relief agency workers, nobody is. That is the state of world opinion today, and Somalia's contribution to it.

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