With famine affecting parts of Somalia, Jeremy Sapienza at antiwar.blog takes time to remind us this is not happening in a vacuum. It is taking place in the context of disruption caused by foreign military activity.
Ethiopia continues to interfere militarily in the border areas of Somalia even after its end of occupation of southern Somalia in 2009. 9,000 African Union troops financed by the United States contest the control of Mogadishu leading to endless battles. Meanwhile direct US involvement consists of regular cruise missile and drone attacks, with secret CIA prisons to go. Additionally Washington will finance any warlord willing to throw his lot with the internationals' clients in the 'Transitional Federal Government'.
This is not the first time there has been a correlation between famine and foreign intervention in Somalia. Twenty years ago an intervention was not one of the causes of malnutrition, but the other way around — famine conditions brought on foreign military adventurism.
On that occasion Americans ended up battling a warlord Mohamed Aideed whom they had initially partnered. Numerous Somalis, combatants and non-combatants alike were killed at the hands of foreign soldiers. Finally, after a media embarrassment in the Black Hawk Down incident Americans hastily withdrew. It was a defeat of American overseas adventurism as clear cut as the fiasco in Lebanon a decade earlier.
The background to what led the United States on this path of failure is an instructive one and comes with an unlikely Balkan connection. The 1992 famine in Somalia provided the backdrop to the intervention, but the desire to provide famine relief fails as a credible cause of intervention. Humanitarian crisis in Somalia was not the only one in Africa at the time and was not necessarily the most severe of them. Additionally 'Operation Restore Hope' was launched only once the worst of the famine was already over and the lot of Somalis was beginning to improve on its own.
The famine in Somalia was not a media-covered event. The coverage of it did not begin in earnest until after 'Restore Hope' was launched in late 1992. The exception was a short burst of reporting in the weeks that followed an American food airlift to Somalia in August. International event the media was concerning itself with instead was the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the first half of August in particular sensationalistic reports from Bosnia ballooned after a fake "concentration camp" photograph hit the stands.
As numerous liberal elitists hurried to give themselves a moral purpose by embracing the idea there were Slav, East European barbarians on a Nazi-style rampage in Bosnia the Bush administration came under elite pressure to militarily intervene in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Bosnian-Herzegovian Serbs. Counter-intuitive given that the US had only recently involved itself in the crisis by giving encouragement to the leadership of the Bosnian Muslims to exit Yugoslavia, Bush would not comply.
Stating he was "not going to get bogged down in some guerilla warfare" Bush rejected calls for an American military adventure in the Balkans. With a mind to the 1992 presidential race he sought to neutralize criticism over inaction in relation to Bosnia by organizing a food airlift to Somalia instead. The food airlift came twelve days after the publication of the faux Bosnia death camp photo had invigorated the humanitarian warmongers.
The pressure to intervene in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not subside. Liberal imperialists as well as right-wingers in love with war on general principles worked energetically to create an atmosphere conductive to US militarily involvement in the war in the Balkans. It was an elite effort mobilizing the press, think-tanks, politicians and government bureaucrats.
American involvement in Bosnia could have positives for the Empire. It could tie NATO Europeans closer to the US and demonstrate the capacity and the willingness of the US to continue to interfere militarily in the world even with the end of the Cold War — much as the 1991 war against Iraq had done. Reluctance to intervene in the face of such a strong movement for intervention on the contrary had the effect of making the US look 'irrelevant' — which is to say sober and peaceable. The problem for Bush was that he shared the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that intervention in Bosnia could easily end in a quagmire and that humanitarianists were being irresponsible in calling for it.
Somalia seemed to offer up a decent solution. Desert where Bosnia and Herzegovina is rugged, accessible by sea instead of landlocked, and the scene of a conflict of much lower intensity. At least in relation to Bosnia it was an easy proposition — thought the Americans. An intervention in Somalia could seemingly be carried out with fewer resources and had less chances of going awry.
With Bill Clinton wining the US presidential election of 1992 the hawks on Bosnia were on the ascendancy. In rearguard action US generals reversed their previous assessment on "do-ability" of intervention in Somalia. Previously they were categorically opposed to both intervention in Bosnia and intervention in Somalia. Now they signaled willingness to do the latter, if they would be spared the former.
With the generals on board for a foray into Somalia all was set. In a final act of his presidency Bush could demonstrate US global reach and leadership, without great exertion and without courting disaster. As admiral David E. Jeremiah, the then Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained:
"Thirty thousand troops is a pretty heavy deployment. No one thought Somalia was going to be cheap or completely risk free. But Bosnia made it seem as though we could do Somalia with a relatively moderate force….Thirty thousand wouldn't get you a running start in Bosnia."Of course Somalia would end up throwing a wrench into Washington's illusions. Possibly getting a bloody nose in Somalia was part of the reason why Clinton's subsequent intervention in Bosnia would a strictly air-based and proxy-based affair. Where 25,000 American soldiers landed in Somalia, not one touched ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina until after the war there was over.
This episode of imperial interference demonstrates how truly banal the causes of Washington's military intervention really are. The reason why the US in 1992 intervened in Somalia had nothing to do with Somalia at all. The cause of intervention was that George H. Bush pushed to intervene in Bosnia, but not wanting to, felt he should intervene somewhere else and in his 'brilliance' settled on the Horn of Africa for scenery.
- Gibbs, David N., First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 2009
- Western, Jon "Sources of Humanitarian Intervention: Beliefs, Information, and Advocacy in the U.S. Decisions on Somalia and Bosnia." International Security 26.4 (2002): 112-142.