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As the U.S. hesitated, Somalis suffered, died.

NEW YORK - When we someday sum up the history of Operation Restore Hope, the US. decision to use the Marines to fight famine in Somalia will likely emerge as a lost opportunity rather than a bold policy breakthrough.

In the short run, lives of many Somalis will be saved, and who can argue with that? Those Somalis who welcomed the Marines as they landed on Mogadishu's beaches reflect a people eager for any possible respite from the death and destruction around them.

But more lives would have likely been - and still might be - saved through a genuinely multilateral, less military and less U.S.-dominated response intended to strengthen local Somali leaders, not bypass or ignore them altogether.

In the rush to military solutions, more nuanced, developmental approaches advocated by the aid agencies working in Somalia have been sacrificed on the altar of Bush's lame-duck ego, America's desire to project its global hegemony in humanitarian garb and the world's preoccupation with other conflicts.

Bush's decision to act is "too much, too late," following months of "too little, too late." He should have taken strong action on Somalia at least six months ago. How many Somalis might be alive today if Bush had shown real leadership in foreign policy and acted then - despite the political risks to his reelection campaign - rather than so conveniently now?

The tragedy is that by waiting so long to act, Bush foreclosed other, less drastic options for intervening by force. And by choosing to insist on exclusive U.S. - not U.N. - command of Operation Restore Hope, he has undermined its credibility as a multilateral initiative.

Certainly, U.S. allies and other Security Council members unanimously voted to accept the United States' offer of military assistance on Bush's terms. But we can take little comfort in that: It conveniently took those governments off the collective moral hook for their own failures to act earlier.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali even dismissed his special representative to Somalia, veteran Algerian diplomat Mohammed Sahnoun, in late October. Sahnoun had been credited with improving conditions through successfully persuading the country's warring factions to allow U.N. troops to guard food aid shipments. But he reportedly angered Boutros-Ghali by publicly criticizing the United Nations' slow response to the Somali crisis.

The United States bears responsibility for much of the current tragedy. It armed an autocratic Siad Barre under both Carter and Reagan - because he was "anticommunist." But Somalis paid the price in repression, a militarized society (now spun out of control by the profusion of American-supplied weapons in a situation of desperate scarcity), and democracy delayed and denied.

Sadly, the very massiveness of Operation Restore Hope may well overwhelm continuing efforts to reestablish and strengthen local Somali institutional capacity to deal with the famine. Collaboration with traditional grass-roots leadership - as distinct from Somalia's warlords - had been making slow but steady progress, thanks to the efforts of aid agencies and Sahnoun. Much of that delicate work will likely unravel or lapse.

Defense Secretary Richard Cheney estimates the operation may cost $300-400 million and last two to three months. But Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, noted that "a few thousand" military personnel might have to remain in Somalia for a longer period.

Scowcroft's words are the ominous tip of an iceberg of strategic interests and hidden agendas submerged beneath the humanitarian surface of Operation Restore Hope. U.S. policymakers' sincerity in responding to Somalia's famine is likely intertwined with more self-interested objectives.

The size and open-ended mission of the U.S. military force being sent to Somalia inherently heralds, as The Nation points out, a "significant political enterprise. It gives the United States a presence in one of the most strategically sensitive spots in the world today: astride the Horn of Africa, where oil, Islamic fundamentalism and Israeli, Iranian and Arab ambitions and arms are apt to crash and collide."

To claim that the U.S. presence in Somalia is politically "neutral" is naive or disingenuous.

U.S. forces will have to work with one or another local Somali leader or businessman at some point, as The Nation notes. Such de facto connections will inherently color Somali politics. One hopes that the U.S. aid agencies briefed last week by State and Defense department officials will resist the temptation to collaborate unthinkingly with the U.S. military presence, thereby making themselves collaborators with that military in the eyes of Somalis.

The most significant long-term outcome of U.S. intervention in Somalia may well be to establish the "right to intervene" on humanitarian grounds in other nations. While the United States disclaims the relevance of this "right" to other conflicts around the world, observers are already busy interpreting its possible relevance to Liberia (also without a functioning government), Bosnia and other conflicts.

Obviously a return to normality in Somalia will depend on a negotiated disarming of civilian gunmen. Many teenagers see their arms and stolen vehicles as investments; if asked to give them up, they would want compensation.

Jessica Mathews, vice president of World Resources Institute, poses a deeper question to those backing the U.N. mission in Somalia: Can security be understood, in the "new world order," in more than its military dimension?

To reestablish a viable economy able to feed Somalia's people is vital to regional security and stability. But it will be tremendously difficult, not least because of what Mathews terms "environmental refugees" - Somalis forced off their land by inappropriate development policies who have fled to cities in search of jobs and food, bringing political instability in their wake.

Drought is not new to Somalia, notes Mathews, but the repeated famines of recent years are. These are a product of efforts to replace traditional land-use patterns - which allowed land time to recover from being tilled - with settled agriculture.

As NCR's article by Rivage-Seul (Dec. 11) put it, countries need to be allowed to implement "food first" policies to feed their own people before growing food for export.

"Opposition to food-first lies at the heart of conflicts between the developed and underdeveloped worlds," noted Rivage-Seul. "Such policy must be permitted even if it interferes with free-market principles."
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Title Annotation:Somalia deployment
Author:Collins, Carole
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 18, 1992
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