Somalia: A Case Study in Interventionism

by , July 04, 2006

July 1 was the 46th anniversary of Somalia’s "independence," and it was celebrated in a rather desultory fashion with a ceremony held at the "Peace Hotel" in war-torn Mogadishu. Former army general Mohamed Nor Galal gave a speech in which he averred that these aren’t exactly salad days for his country: "We just commemorate the day, but it does not seem like previous occasions." An understatement, to say the least: these days, Somalia has become virtually synonymous with chaos, thuggery, and unrelenting bloodshed. The United States is funding warlords whose chief recommendation is that they are "secular" – i.e., not Islamists – while Islamist "courts" that grew up in response to the lawlessness are now gaining the upper hand. Go here for an eye-opening view of how the U.S. contributed mightily to this turn of events – and gave an opening to Osama bin Laden, who devoted a good part of his latest message to warning the U.S. against interfering in what he doubtless considers to be his own territory.

If so, we delivered it to him on a silver platter. Indeed, the entire history of our intervention in that unfortunate land is a long narrative of unrelieved stupidity and shortsighted opportunism, which I’ll try to condense here as best I can.

The first Western intervention in Somalia was in the 16th century, when the Portuguese made an alliance with the Christian empire of Ethiopia and defeated the Muslim Somalis at the battle of Wayna Daga, whereupon the Portuguese set up a small colony engaged in the production of textiles. The Europeans, however, were driven out by the invading Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who held the region into the mid-19th century. Divided up by the European powers after the fall of the Ottomans, Somalia and neighboring areas became prey for the French, the British, the Italians, and the Egyptians, who all moved in to the power vacuum created by the Ottoman collapse.

Another contender for hegemony over Somalia was Ethiopia, which presented itself as the only alternative to European domination. After the Ottoman retreat, Emperor Menelik II invaded the Ogaden region, largely inhabited by Somalis, and this was the beginning of a long-standing dispute between the two nations. Opposition to rule by outsiders centered on the dervishes, a Muslim sect led by the charismatic scholar and poet Sayyid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan, who carried on a guerrilla war that lasted for 20 years and wreaked devastation on the country. The British finally ended it by engaging in a relentless campaign of aerial bombing raids in 1920, but cut their losses soon afterward, abandoning the country to the Italians, who took up the white man’s burden with naïve alacrity.

Italian suzerainty was short-lived, however, as World War II approached and Mussolini determined – rightly – that he would need to husband all his resources for the defense of the homeland. The region reverted to the British, who declared martial law and fought the northern clans and the resident Italians.

After the war, the British tried to introduce a form of native democracy: while never imposing British law, and allowing the locals to abide by Islamic courts, the Brits instituted limited parliamentary democracy. The country was eventually delivered to the tender mercies of the United Nations, which delayed Somalian independence, granting trusteeship of the southern part of the country to the Italians, who were allowed to relive their imperial delusions for yet another decade, and establishing a British protectorate in the North. The two were united when Somalia was granted independence, but the divisions persisted, with a northern secessionist movement developing in tandem with the growth of Pan-Somalian nationalist parties: these advocated a "Greater Somalia" and pressed for the "liberation" of Somali-speaking minorities in the Ogaden and Kenya.

This era saw the rise of socialist and Marxist currents in the country, which soon tilted toward the Soviet Union and China. Substantial economic aid from the Soviet bloc flowed in. The aim of the ruling elite was to forge Somalia into a modern, i.e., super-centralized, state, under which the clan loyalties that are so much a part of Somali culture were to be subsumed and eventually eliminated. However, internal divisions culminated in a coup led by Mohamed Siad Barre, whose regime of relentless repression and endless war – against both foreign targets and his own people – lasted from 1969-91.

Barre moved quickly to cement relations with the Soviet Union, and set up Somalia as a one-party Marxist state where gigantic posters of Barre in the company of Marx and Engels festooned the streets. The Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party was set up, complete with a Politburo, and Barre presided over it all as absolute dictator. Nationalist Somali ideology, centered on the "Greater Somalia" concept, merged with Marxist boilerplate to energize a form of national socialism that was naturally aggressive. Soviet aid gave Barre the biggest army on the continent, and he soon used it to attack Ethiopia.

This move angered his Soviet sponsors, due to the Ethiopian "revolution" that had overthrown the monarchy long presided over by Emperor Haile Selassie: in 1977, the Ethiopians installed a Marxist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Somalis were crushed by the formerly American-aided Ethiopian military, which was outfitted with the latest weaponry, and Barre’s Soviet sponsors abandoned him.

The Marxist dictator Barre then turned to the Americans, who were more than glad to welcome him with open arms. A U.S. naval base was soon established at Berbera, and U.S. aid poured in. But the regime was shaky. Dissatisfaction with Barre’s increasingly despotic rule led to rebellions, especially in the north and among the military corps, and the dictator reacted with savage reprisals carried out by his feared Red Berets.

In the south of the country, the Marjeerteen clan was targeted on account of its support for anti-government guerillas: civilians were slaughtered, along with livestock, and water sources were despoiled. The result was a government-created famine. Barre’s next victims were the Isaaq clan in the north. Government troops leveled the city of Hargeysa, and the United Nations condemned the campaign as attempted genocide. Barre remained an American ally and recipient of U.S. aid throughout this period. As the 1990s approached, however, the Somalis had had it with Barre, and the various local rebellions against his misrule coalesced into a general uprising that sent him packing.

Post-Barre, Somalia reverted back to what it has always been and will doubtless be as far as the eye can see: a patchwork collection of clan-based factions and sub-clan alliances, based on cultural and religious rather than political or state-based allegiances. In 1991, the north declared its independence, but "Somaliland," as it was deemed, was not recognized by any foreign government. Instead, the UN – determined to impose the kind of centralism desired by Barre and his "scientific socialism" – went in to reestablish a central government, feed the people, and lead them to "democracy," Western-style. Initiated by Bush the Elder, and passed off to incoming President Bill Clinton, "Operation Restore Hope" was sold as a "humanitarian intervention."

As it turned out, however, the effects of this intervention – aside from the deaths of 18 American servicemen and the dragging of their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu – were not quite so humanitarian. As Brendan O’Neill points out in an excellent piece:

"Restore Hope was part of America’s search for a sense of moral purpose after it had been robbed of its big, bad enemy, the Soviet Union. That is why American officials continually exaggerated the scale of the famine in Somalia, which they claimed to be launching a war against: because this was a staged intervention rather than a genuine attempt to lift Somalia out of poverty. In truth, the worst of the famine was over before American forces arrived, and as some experts have pointed out, the interventions by the U.S., the UN, and numerous aid agencies increased poverty and hunger in Somalia rather than alleviating it. For example, the flooding of Somalia with aid effectively destroyed the country’s agricultural industry."

And of course it was pure coincidence that, as Steve Kretzman pointed out in Multinational Monitor,

"Just before pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, nearly two-thirds of the country’s territory had been granted as oil concessions to Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, and Phillips. Conoco even lent its Mogadishu corporate compound to the U.S. embassy a few days before the Marines landed, with the first Bush administration’s special envoy using it as his temporary headquarters."

During the "golden age" of imperialism, the Somalis were traded back and forth between the European powers, their resources divvied up and exploited. In the Cold War era, they were used as pawns by the two superpowers in a game of geopolitical chess, subsidized and egged on in their internal conflicts by foreign sponsors eager to cash in on the bloody consequences. Today, Somalia is once again a plaything in the hands of much larger forces, becoming the latest battleground in the war between the United States and what the administration and its neoconservative amen corner would have us believe is al-Qaeda.

The most recent U.S. intervention into a clan dispute – occasioned by the misperception that their guys had been attacked by al-Qaeda-affiliated "terrorists" – is surely the definitive demonstration of U.S. policymakers’ incompetence and arrogance. This has led to U.S. support for the "warlords" – who were previously hunted by U.S. troops – since they present the only alternative to the rising power of the Islamic courts. It doesn’t matter that the warlords are generally despised by a populace that is daily subjected to murder, pillage, and rape at their hands. All that matters to the U.S. government is that these guys are "secular," i.e., they believe only in Power, which, as we all know, comes out of the barrel of a gun.

U.S. intervention in Somalia, whether of the "humanitarian" sort or the more Bushian variety, is bound to lead where it has always led: to disaster, for us and for the Somalis. Osama bin Laden’s recent rant, however, is bound to provoke a U.S. response, and, in any case, we are already deeply involved. Unless Congress reins in the president and his neocon advisers – highly unlikely – or (even more improbably) common sense prevails at the Department of State, we are poised to jump head first into yet another quagmire. The interventionists have learned nothing and they regret nothing – and we are, all of us, bound to reap the consequences.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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