Stay Out of Somalia

The Bush administration has won a United Nations’ resolution that permits the pursuit of pirates inside Somalia. That document could provide the pretext for another disastrous slippery slope nation-building mission and the first geopolitical crisis for President-elect Obama. America should remain off shore and let those with stakes in Somalia wrestle the problem.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing international operations against pirates inside Somalia. Resolution 1851 authorizes for one year countries already involved in fighting piracy off Somalia to “take all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia” to suppress “acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.” Rice would not speculate on whether American troops might go ashore to join a UN force in that failed country.

Over the past two months thirty vessels have been attacked by Somali pirates and 17 major ships are now in their possession, including an arms-laden Ukrainian cargo vessel and a Saudi supertanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil. The pirates have collected at least $30 million in ransom payments this year which was split among the pirates, the federal and regional government bosses and the Islamic militia.

Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, said “This lawlessness constitutes a serious threat to regional stability and to international peace and security.” Rice echoed that sentiment to warn “…if chaos reigns in Somalia” we may have “…to turn at some point to peacemaking.” Currently, the UN has 12 peacemaking missions on the African continent.

Rice’s view should worry the Obama camp especially if President Bush commits troops to the UN operation. A new UN mission to Somalia could end up following the precedent established by President George H. W. Bush. The elder Bush sent a humanitarian force authorized by UN resolution 794 to Somalia in December 1992, Operation Restore Hope, which ended ten months later in the tragedy known as “Black Hawk Down.”

Conditions in Somalia at the time weren’t that different from today. There was widespread fighting and 300,000 died of starvation in 1991-92. Vast amounts of food relief shipments were hijacked and exchanged with other countries for weapons. Once the UN arrived its mission quickly morphed into protecting humanitarian activities and then into peace enforcement. By summer there were 37,000 UN troops on the ground and “peace enforcers” were fighting rebels.

The mission climaxed on October 3-4, 1993 when U.S. forces were pitted against Somali militia fighters loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The Americans were out-gunned inside the capitol of Mogadishu until a multinational rescue operation evacuated them but not before 18 U.S. soldiers died and 73 were wounded.

Days later President Clinton directed the military to stop all actions and announced that U.S. forces would withdraw by March 31, 1994. The mission failed because it was ill-defined, had poor intelligence and lacked the necessary troops and hardware.

That failure was followed by years of sustained disengagement from Africa and a shift in American foreign policy that avoided intervention in third world conflicts peripherally related to its strategic interests such as the crises in Rwanda and Congo.

The rules changed after 9/11, however. American special operations forces became engaged in anti-terrorism operations in Eastern and Northern Africa and the U.S. trained thousands of Africans to fight insurgents at home. But these efforts have been limited in scope as not to take resources away from America’s main efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today, conditions in Somalia are as chaotic as they were in 1993. The population is plagued by widespread famine, disease and 400,000 people are internally displaced. Pirates operate from Somalia’s shores because there is no effective government. The government, which came to power in 2004, controls little territory and provides little governance. It is severely threatened by an Islamist insurgency being waged by the al-Shabab militant group which is intent on installing the Taliban-like Supreme Islamic Courts Council.

Even though Somalia is seething with Islamists and pirates, it does not pose a strategic threat for America that justifies the use of American ground forces other than a few unannounced special operations personnel seeking high value targets. After all, Somali pirates are no more than a nuisance to our sea-based commerce and the majority of the Islamists are not as yet a threat outside that country.

But Secretary Rice appears to want American warriors ashore in anticipation that Somalia’s problems will spread. She explained “I would not be here seeking authorization to go ashore if the United States government … were not behind this resolution.” Rather than looking for another war for American soldiers to fight, Rice should push those closer to the problem to do the fighting.

Unfortunately, Somalia’s neighbors haven’t provided much help. In 2006, U.S.-supported Ethiopian troops with the help of the African Union (AU), an East African defense organization, marched into Somalia to replace the de facto government run by the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu and reinstalled the secular transitional government. But now the Ethiopians have run out of money and patience and their repressive tactics have pushed many Somalis into the arms of brutal Islamists who are enforcing Sharia law and gaining in popular support. Ethiopia is leaving Somalia and the AU won’t be far behind.

President Bush could send American troops to Somalia as one of his final acts in office much as his father did in December 1992. After all, Secretary Rice said “No American administration is going to want to see chaos in Somalia.” But more likely any decision regarding Somalia will fall to the next administration.

But how will the newly-minted President Obama deal with the Somalia crisis? Respected Africa-experts such as Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state, and Samantha Power, author of a book on the Rwandan genocide, supported Obama’s candidacy and now may join his administration. Will these Africa experts counsel the new president to use the Somalia crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate Obama’s promised style of diplomatic engagement with rogues like the Islamist militant group al-Shabab? Or will they counsel the new president to join the UN peace enforcers to wade ashore Somali beaches in search of pirates and radical Islamists?

Likely, Obama won’t ignore Africa. The current situation in Somalia is neither easy nor new, but that should not stop Obama from trying to find a solution. He should opt for a diplomatic approach by America and more forceful action by the nations whose interests are directly implicated rather than committing American troops to another slippery slope mission that’s doomed to fail and presents zero strategic threat for the U.S.