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Before we start shooting.

The images are horrible: Night after night on the network news, morning after morning on newspaper front pages, the emaciated victims of famine in Somalia stare dully into the camera lenses. The skeletal children, in particular, present a dreadful, indelible picture; many obviously have only hours or, at best, days left to live.

The statistics are appalling: An estimated 300,000 people (or more) are believed to have died already of starvation or famine-linked disease, and the toll grows by hundreds every day. Perhaps two million more people are at serious risk in a nation that may have four million or six million or eight million inhabitants--no one really knows. We do know that some towns have virtually been wiped out.

The problem is formidable: International relief shipments arrive at Mogadishu airport, but before they can be distributed they are seized or destroyed by roving bands of armed thugs in the employ of ruthless clan chiefs whom the media now describe as warlords. No government exists in Somalia, and no internal force is capable of restoring and preserving order.

The solution seems simple: Send in the Marines--the U.S. Marines and other American military forces, along with enough troops from other nations to let us call it, in good conscience or bad, a U.N. or international force. Perhaps the mere presence of a high-tech armed contingent will persuade the bandits to lay down their weapons or, at least, stop interfering with food distribution. Or perhaps order will be restored by a few well-executed military encounters--surgical strikes, as the generals like to say.

If ever a case could be made for benign U.S. military intervention, this is it. Or is it? Before we start shooting some Somalians (a few, let us hope) to save other Somalians (a great many, let us hope) from starvation, there are questions to be asked and facts to be considered:

[paragraph] Why has almost all of the international aid to Somalia been funneled through Mogadishu, where disorder is most acute and prospects for looting, hijacking, and piracy are most pronounced? Some relief workers insist that no attempt has been made to use safer routes that would make for likelier success in the transmittal of food and supplies.

[paragraph] What will the U.S. (or international) military force do about the clan warfare that underlies the current emergency in Somalia and that will persist whether or not the disruption of food deliveries is temporarily eased? As one aid worker told a reporter for the Reuters news agency, "In the short term, military intervention could hamper relief work, and in the long term, how does it help solve the Somali crisis?"

[paragraph] For how long a period will a U.S. military intervention in Somalia be sustained? President Bush initially said he intended to have U.S. forces out before his successor is inaugurated on January 20, but Somalia has virtually no infrastructure left, no economy, no transportation network, no system of agriculture. It will be in a state of agony and chaos (including the threat of starvation at current levels or worse) for the indefinite future. New violence can erupt at any time, and surely will once the alien military presence is removed.

[paragraph] How will Americans react if a few U.S. troops or a few aid workers are seized or killed in Somalia? Will this precipitate a political crisis for the new Administration? Will it mean committing still more troops to a hopeless situation--a not entirely unfamiliar course in recent American history?

[paragraph] Will intervention in Somalia serve as the precedent for a new wave of U.S. military expeditions to all corners of the globe? Somalia is, after all, by no means the only country suffering from famine and civil war. Already there is talk of dispatching troops to Liberia, which has long and intimate ties to Washington, and to Zaire, another U.S. client state. What about Sudan? What about Yugoslavia? What about various regions of the former Soviet Union that surely face terrible travail in the years ahead? Will there be no end to the "humanitarian" commitment of U.S. troops? Is this the opportunity some U.S. strategic planners have long sought--the opening gambit toward Pax Americana?

The problem is not, as some Congressional conservatives and right-wing think-tanks have suggested, that the financial cost of coming to Somalia's rescue is too heavy a burden for the United States to assume; on the contrary, it's a pittance compared to the vast sums that have been squandered--and are still being squandered--on military and space boondoggles. And even if an effective rescue attempt were to require real sacrifices of Americans, who would say No?

The problem is that once again the United States has embraced its favorite means of dealing with any crisis--the use of armed force. Make no mistake, the troops dispatched to Somalia will not be spoon-feeding starving infants; they will be brandishing their weapons and, when they deem it necessary, firing them. When we search recent history--or ancient history, for that matter--for encouraging examples of the use of military might to advance humanitarian ends, we come up dry.

This time, we're told, America is pursuing humane objectives without ulterior motive. Whence this sudden spasm of altruism? Who can recall another such case in the last few decades? Some close observers of the Somalian scene have suggested that there may still be time for a nonmilitary solution that would save most of the lives now at risk--time for a civilian force of mediators, armed with economic incentives, who could bring Somalia's warring parties to a truce table. It might not work, but it hasn't been tried. Why not?

Perhaps there really is nothing to do about the tragedy in Somalia except inject armed force to permit the starving multitudes to be fed. But the tragedy has been unfolding for years; it originated, in fact, during the decades when Somalia was a Cold War pawn of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, we are urgently advised, the tragedy must be addressed within days, within hours. But no matter how heart-wrenching the images on the evening news and in the morning papers, aren't there questions we ought to ask, facts we ought to ponder, before we start shooting?
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Title Annotation:Operation Restore Hope; includes dissenting sidebar favoring U.S. military intervention in Somalia
Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1049
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