Out of Africa

March 08, 1995|By C.W. GUSEWELLE

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI — Kansas City, Missouri. -- As U.N. troops are plucked from the beach, abandoning Somalia once more to the governance of gun-happy thugs, it is useless to try to put a good face on the failed intervention there. Operation Restore Hope was a waste of lives, a waste of resources, a waste of time.

There was no hope to restore.

There was no nation to save.

We had no clear objective, and no discernible interests there -- either a direct interest, or the more general one of defending the integrity of national borders.

We did not rescue the inhabitants of that wretched place -- only prolonged their ordeal. The single imaginable yield of this debacle is what we may have learned from it. If we profit from the lesson, it may turn out to have been cheap at the price.

Because there will be other Somalias; you can count on it. There will be other chances to involve ourselves in Africa's catastrophes. Illusion and political pressure could send us stumbling into worse adventures than that one.

Somalia seemed so easy at the start: Show the flag, subdue a few ragtag warring factions, feed the hungry and get out. George Bush charted the course to that shore. Bill Clinton sailed the ship. And it was a doomed enterprise.

That is not after-the-fact wisdom. Americans who know Africa -- know it as it is, not as others dream it and wish it were -- sounded warnings at the very outset. Institutions are fragile there. The concept of nationhood is new and often tenuous. Tribe and clan are the controlling political units, and pursuit of power the sovereign ethic.

When things come apart, they do so horrendously. Witness Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, Rwanda.

There are no rules of engagement. Genocide is just another technique of conflict resolution.

What happens when Nigeria, the continent's most populous country, arrives at the precipice toward which it has been reeling for a decade?

Or when Zaire, the former Congo, erupts in the self-devouring chaos that Mobutu Sese Seko's long misrule has made all but inevitable?

Or when the hopeless and furious mobs come boiling out of the slums around Nairobi?

Or when, heaven forbid it, expectations are overtaken by reality in the new South Africa, and the fury erupts in a renewal of tribal war?

None of this may happen. All of it could.

How clearly will we see our interests then? Upon which of these stakes will we choose to impale ourselves, for decency's sake or some other, better reason? And how practically will we weigh the odds of success?

Somalia was not very important, except in showing how little Americans really understood of the kind of chaos we were confronting.

In time, the guns of the warlords will wear out or rust out, and the tragedy will spin on, with the powerful destroying the powerless by whatever other means come to hand.

Some evils, plainly, we cannot prevent. But our ignorance of Africa is worth correcting before our policy there is put to larger and more dangerous tests.

C. W. Gusewelle is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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