THE U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya has revived an important question for the left: Can U.S. forces be deployed for humanitarian ends? The U.S.-led invasion of Somalia in 1992 offers critical lessons. As with Libya today, some on the left were tripped up by the question posed by Somalia—namely, whether to support Western military intervention when it was cloaked in statements about peace and altruism.
In continuing George Bush Sr.’s “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia, Bill Clinton declared the U.S. military to be a “force for good”—and this approach for using American forces framed much of U.S. foreign policy in the era following the demise of the USSR, from Somalia to Haiti to the war in Bosnia and Kosovo. Under the cover of “humanitarian intervention,” politicians shored up progressive support and disguised their true motives—to push through a neoliberal economic agenda, crush resistance to the empire, and build a network of compliant regimes.
Above all, “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia was intended to bury for good the Vietnam War syndrome—the legacy of the U.S. government’s defeat in Vietnam that hamstrung its ability to intervene at will around the globe. As Anna Simmons, an anthropology professor and commentator on Somalia, put it at the time:
Certainly, Somalia—a “poor,” “backward” country at the edge of Africa—would seem an excellent place to practice this new form of aggressive intervention. The situation in Somalia offers an entire country in which to practice drawing the lines of new world order.
Millions of ordinary Somalis paid the price of those lines being drawn—years of devastation in one of the most war-torn regions in the world.
A Cold War battleground
The roots of the 1992 invasion stretch back decades to the Cold War era. Somalia was a longtime recipient of U.S. aid, especially military funding, during the 1970s and the 1980s. In the early years of the Cold War, Somalia had been a client state of the USSR, while the U.S. supported the regime of King Haile Selassie in rival Ethiopia. But following Selassie’s overthrow in 1974, the superpowers switched sides, and the U.S. shifted its backing to Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre.
The U.S. had clear strategic objectives in positioning itself in this Cold War battleground. Despite American support for Barre, Ethiopia was the key prize of the region, driving U.S.-USSR hostilities in the Horn of Africa. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger illustrated the cynicism of U.S. policy with his 1974 comment: “To give food aid to a country just because they are starving is a pretty weak reason.”
The global military competition between the U.S. and USSR led to a period of escalating tensions between the superpowers, with one flashpoint being a Somali invasion of eastern Ethiopia in 1977 to gain control of the Somali-speaking Ogaden region. In response, the Soviet Union airlifted 20,000 Cuban troops to Ethiopia to fend off the attack, providing an opportunity for the U.S. to tilt toward Somalia and shore up a new client in the region. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski commented at the time that the event marked the end of detente and the return of Cold War.
By 1980, Carter—the supposed “human rights” president—had signed an agreement with Barre’s Somalia that gave the U.S. use of military bases and access to the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, in return for millions in military aid to the Somali government. The U.S. was “eager for a strategic outpost near the Arabian oil fields,” wrote Time magazine. “[F]or the next 10 years, the U.S. poured hundreds of millions of dollars into arming the country.”
The fact that Barre murdered thousands of civilians, engaged in systematic torture and imprisoned dissidents meant little to the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank—all of which continued the long tradition of U.S. support for friendly dictators, from Chile’s Pinochet to Indonesia’s Suharto and Panama’s Noriega.
Beyond the geopolitical importance of Somalia’s location along the Gulf of Aden that provides access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, U.S. priorities were driven by oil interests. Exploration in Somalia began in the 1980s, and U.S. oil corporations like Conoco got their hands on billions of dollars worth of contracts under Barre.
But in the end, U.S. policy wrecked the economy of Somalia, as it did in much of Africa. Beginning in 1977, the IMF demanded stringent neoliberal measures in Somalia—in return for loans, the government forced through privatization and slashed government spending and wage subsidies. In a period of five years, per capita gross national product dropped from an already low $250 annually to $170. A decade of military aid and structural adjustment programs sowed the seeds for a desperate crisis. The combination of arms money and IMF policies severely weakened Somalia’s economy, and that, combined with drought conditions, led to a civil war that erupted in 1988.
By 1991, Somalia was in the grips of a horrible famine that had taken 300,000 lives. By late 1991, UN officials estimated that 4.5 million Somalis faced grave food shortages. Up to 25 percent of Somalia’s children under five had died, according to one international aid group. Meanwhile, the U.S. had begun to withdraw aid from Barre—he was eventually overthrown in 1991.
With the USSR imploding that same year, causing a collapse in Soviet aid to Ethiopia, the U.S. saw an opportunity to cement a client relationship with the chief power in the Horn of Africa. Amid the crisis in Somalia, the U.S. cynically cast about for an ally that would better serve its interests.
The U.S. steps in
In the wake of Barre’s ouster, the U.S. conveniently donned the cloak of humanitarianism, citing the famine as justification for military intervention. Significantly, the most severe period of the famine had passed several monthsbefore the U.S. declared its commitment to ending hunger in Somalia. In 1992—on the eve of the invasion—the death rate had fallen by 90 percent, according to Africa Watch.
George Bush set the stage for the invasion by claiming that donated food supplies were being stolen by “warlords,” and that Somalis needed U.S. military protection to make sure food was distributed.
In late 1992, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a U.S.-led coalition of troops, known as UNITAF, to provide “humanitarian relief.” Troops landed in Somalia early the following year in an intervention called “Operation Restore Hope.”
But “Operation Restore Hope” was anything but. As Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal wrote in 1993:
If we turned back the clock a few weeks, we would see a Somalia lit up with many signs of hope. Throughout the country, ordinary Somalis were taking the initiative to bring the future of their country under control.… A series of local agreements were making it possible for emergency relief to be delivered in a way unprecedented in the last year.
But positive developments in Somalia went by the wayside once U.S. boots hit the ground.
“Fighting the warlords” became the new call to action. The victor over Barre, Gen. Mohamed Ali Farah Aidid, wasn’t willing to make deals with the U.S. Soon after the invasion, food distribution was undermined by U.S. determination to rout Aidid by boosting forces loyal to the West, such as the self-declared President Ali Mahdi Muhammad. As left-wing writer Stephen Zunes described:
[T]heir role escalated to attempts at disarming warlords, including armed assaults in crowded urban neighborhoods. This “mission creep” resulted in American casualties, creating growing dissent at home in what had originally been a widely supported foreign policy initiative. The thousands of M-16 rifles sent, courtesy of the American taxpayer, to Barre’s armed forces were now in the hands of rival militiamen, who had not only used them to kill fellow countrymen and to disrupt the distribution of relief supplies, but were now using them against American troops.
Soldiers were heard repeating the slogan “The only good Somali is a dead Somali.” It had become apparent that the United States had badly underestimated the resistance.
The United States was the leading force in the UN deployment, and it carried out increasingly aggressive assaults, culminating in the battle in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in October 1993 that was portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down. Eighteen American soldiers were killed—so were approximately 1,000 Somalis, though that fact escaped the attention of the U.S. media, which devoted endless airtime to images of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the city streets.
Three months earlier, a missile attack by U.S. helicopters had killed fifty to seventy clan elders and intellectuals, many of them moderates attempting to broker a settlement to the war. According to the New York Times, U.S. officials estimated casualties of 6,000 to 10,000 Somalis—two-thirds of them women and children—in the summer of 1993 alone.
In fact, unarmed men, women and children became open targets for American troops. A writer for Britain’s Independent described how “[i]n one incident, Rangers took a family hostage. When one of the women started screaming at the Americans, she was shot dead. In another incident, a Somali prisoner was allegedly shot dead when he refused to stop praying outside. Another was clubbed into silence.”
After the Battle of Mogadishu, Canada, Belgium, and Italy all investigated charges of torture and murder committed by their troops, but the U.S. never issued a reprimand or even an inquiry. The trials in Belgium uncovered horrific evidence of abuse—including a sergeant accused of force-feeding a Muslim Somali child with pork and salted water until he vomited, and a sergeant major photographed urinating on the apparently dead body of a young man.
Meanwhile, “humanitarian relief” aid agencies working in places like Somalia reaped a massive boon through government contracts. As Somalia expert Alex De Waal put it, “Somalia is a striking manifestation of a new doctrine in international affairs, which we might call ‘humanitarian impunity,’ where aid-givers and peacekeepers, not local civilians, are becoming the beneficiaries of international law.”
All told, of the $1.5 billion earmarked by the UN for “humanitarian” intervention in Somalia, only 10 percent was spent on lifesaving work. The bulk of the funds went to the more than 28,000 troops that occupied Somalia, including the deployment of over 100 tanks, armored vehicles, attack helicopters, airborne gunships, and an aircraft carrier. Clinton eventually withdrew all troops by March 1994, and remaining UN peacekeeping forces were pulled out the next year.
Despite the widely perceived failure of the invasion, so-called “humanitarian intervention” was used to justify ramped-up defense spending. Colin Powell, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who later became George Bush Jr.’s Secretary of State, approvingly called Operation Restore Hope “a paid political advertisement” for maintaining a military and security budget that would soar over $1 trillion a year. He urged the allocation of billions of dollars to ensure military preparedness for two or more wars at the same time in different parts of the globe.
The liberal left goes along
One of the many tragedies of the war in Somalia was the support it received from the liberals and the left.
Once-progressive columnist Murray Kempton wrote that he was “proud to be an American” again, and imagined himself sauntering the corridors of the UN “fairly swollen with the majesty of a United States that could at last glory in its conscience instead of its might.”
TransAfrica Executive Director Randall Robinson, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and several Black Democratic officials criticized Bush’s objectives in Somalia as being too limited—and instead called “for U.S. military forces to maintain order in the famine-stricken African country until an effective government can be established.” Human Rights Watch and organizations like SANE/FREEZE (now Peace Action) lined up alongside the government, requesting the use of military force to “ensure the safety of aid shipments and relief workers.”
Before the collapse of the USSR, U.S. interventions against national liberation movements and governments tied to Moscow faced broad opposition on the left. But “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia gave the U.S. and the rest of the West the opportunity to rebuild their military credibility and public support for wars abroad. All told, there were roughly 40 “peacekeeping” operations in the 1990s.
U.S. intervention in Somalia left the country decidedly worse off. Somalia consistently ranks near or at the bottom of virtually all human development measurements, from life expectancy to infant mortality. Since 1991, the country has been wracked by civil war, fueled by U.S. support for various sides in the conflict. In 2006, when neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia, U.S. backing and funding for Ethiopia was a barely concealed secret.
Somalia today is home to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with rampant poverty and millions displaced. But the only assistance on offer from the U.S. is military aid for the current president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and his battle against opposition forces he calls “terrorist,” in keeping with the mantra of U.S. warmakers since September 11.
As acclaimed Somali author Nuruddin Farah put it: “The United States and its allies, having long remained impervious to the ruin of Somalia, must think hard now about firing a missile or mounting an invasion, and so bringing more pain to a land that has not enjoyed peace for...decade[s].”
The lesson of Somalia is the urgent need to build an anti-imperialist movement opposed to all U.S. military action—one that is unswerving in opposition to all interventions, regardless of whether they cloaked as “humanitarian.” As Somalia shows us, there is no “humanity” in humanitarian interventions.