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Commentary

U.S.–Made Mess in Somalia


     
 Print 

The media often report overseas developments, but don’t always explore their underlying causes, which, in many cases, conveniently lets the U.S. government off the hook. The recent internecine violence in Somalia provides a classic example.

The U.S. media have focused to date almost exclusively on the rising Islamist movement in Somalia and U.S. “covert” assistance to the Ethiopian invasion that supported Somalia’s transitional government against the stronger Islamists. The media should be focusing on one of the major causes of the Somali mess: U.S. government meddling.

After 9/11, the Bush administration feared that the absence of a strong government in the “failed state” of Somalia could turn the small east–African country—slightly smaller than Texas—into a haven for terrorists. The administration ignored the fact that other states with weak governments have not become sanctuaries for terrorists. Even if Somalia had become a terrorist enclave, the terrorists, absent some U.S. provocation, probably would not have attacked the faraway United States.

As a result of the administration’s unfounded fear, the United States began supporting unpopular warlords in the strife-torn nation. That’s when the real trouble began.

The radical Islamists in Somalia never had much following until the Somali people became aware that an outside power was supporting the corrupt and thuggish military chieftains. The popularity of the Islamist movement then surged, allowing the Islamists to take over much of the country. In sum, where no problem with radical Islamists previously existed, the U.S. government helped create one.

In many respects, the Somali episode is a replay of other horribly counterproductive past U.S. interventions. In the 1980s, for example, the U.S. government supported the radical Islamist Mujahadeen—then fighting the non–Muslim Soviet occupiers in Muslim Afghanistan—that metamorphosed into al Qaeda, which is now attacking the United States for its non–Muslim military presence in the Persian Gulf.

History followed a similar pattern in Iraq. The Bush administration justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq in part by al Qaeda’s alleged link to Saddam Hussein—a thug, to be sure, but one who had been wise enough, in reality, to support groups who didn’t focus their attacks on the United States. Now, in Iraq, where there were no anti–U.S. Islamic terrorists before, we have plenty to fight.

Somalia is the third example of the United States creating a potentially anti–U.S. Islamist threat where none previously existed. The U.S.–supported Ethiopian invasion weakened the Somali Islamists, but they are still fighting fiercely for control of Mogadishu, the capital. Like those in Iraq, all the Somali Islamists have to do is hang on until the foreign occupier gets exhausted and leaves. When that happens, the Islamists could very well become the dominant political force in the country, capitalizing on their “patriotic” resistance to the hated Ethiopian occupiers and their U.S. benefactors.

The U.S.–backed Ethiopians, already unpopular, have become even more despised as a result of their alleged indiscriminate shelling of Mogadishu’s civilian areas, which human rights groups are calling a war crime. Unlike the period when the Islamists controlled Mogadishu, the transitional government has been unable to keep order, undermining both its credibility and public support. As a result, many in Somalia see the period of Islamic rule as good days, and now long for its return.

And that’s probably what will happen. Like the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, whose recent good fortunes were brought about by continued foreign occupation of that country, we will likely see the Somali Islamists make a comeback.

U.S. experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia should teach foreign policy experts and the American public that U.S. meddling abroad is often counterproductive and dangerous. Yet the U.S. media help the U.S. government disguise these policy failures by failing to expose the underlying causes of violence, enabling the U.S. government to make the same mistakes over and over again.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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