Under the protection of a U.S. military umbrella, the United Nations
extricated itself from Somalia in early March 1995. The exit went well and may
serve as a model for pulling U.N. peacekeepers out of the former Yugoslavia and
other places where they run into trouble. But what lessons is the United States
drawing from the "failed" Somalia enterprise? Is "failure" the right term to
describe the U.S. and U.N. military intervention? If so, what is it that
Appraisals of the Somalia operation vary widely. Some disparage it as a
media-driven spectacle of misguided internationalism that ignored the pitfalls
of intervention in alien places lacking civil order and legitimate political
institutions. Some see Somalia as an almost welcome inoculation against the
temptation to intervene in places such as Rwanda, while others blame the
Somalia operation for sapping U.S. political will and global standing and for
inhibiting Americans from doing the right thing in "more important" places like
Bosnia. The lesson, in this view, is to refrain from applying global standards
and to disengage from the world's strategic slums. Another school views Somalia
as an epitaph for multilateralism and an object lesson on the United Nations'
inadequacies and the need to limit the U.S. role in U.N. peacekeeping. Still
others view Somalia as a laudable step toward a new era in American
exceptionalism and humanitarian leadership, which turned sour because the
United States became entangled in local politics. The actual lessons, however,
are more subtle and more interesting than these one-liners suggest.
The intervention in Somalia was not a failure as measured by the standards
first set by President Bush. Much has been accomplished in humanitarian terms,
and a larger tragedy has been averted. How large a tragedy it is impossible to
know, but, judging by the Somali death toll of 1992, one could reasonably
estimate that upwards of a quarter of a million Somali lives were saved. Some
The Somali political landscape, moreover, has been changed forever. The
apparent rejection of outside political initiatives by local parties should not
obscure the fact that foreign intervention knocked a hideously costly,
stalemated clan war off dead center and opened the field for local initiatives.
This is a classic, if sometimes perverse, function of foreign intervention.
Today large parts of the country are free of conflict and widespread human
suffering. This is not to say that Somalia is a peaceful or hopeful place, but
we left it better off than we found it.
Somalia had the ill fortune to experience firsthand the full effects of a
U.S. political transition: the steep learning curve of an inexperienced
administration in Washington, an idiosyncratic U.N. leadership bent on using
leverage borrowed from member states to fix Somalia, and a prolonged,
unresolved debate between New York and Washington over basic purposes in the
These tensions and disruptions were manifest in the various phases of the
-- U.N. Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I), April-December 1992, which tried
to reconcile warring Somali factions but collapsed from bureaucratic infighting
and an inability to provide safety for relief operations;
-- United Task Force (UNITAV) December 1992 -- April 1993, a multinational
force led by the United States and approved by the United Nations, which
quickly provided that safety, started a low-key political process, and
maintained working relationships with all Somali factions and groups;
-- U.N. Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II), May 1993 -- March 1995, the
U.N.-led operation that comprised an overreaching, "nation-building" phase
(May-October 1993) and a scaled-back, accommodative phase (November 1993 --
March 1995) triggered by the October 3, 1993, firefight in Mogadishu.
As the initial intervention unfolded, Somalia was transformed from a
famine-stricken backwater where heartless warlords and hopped-up teenage gangs
reigned over helpless innocents into a laboratory for new theories of U.N.
peacekeeping. Perhaps, ironically, the impressive leadership, coherence, and
dramatic success of the U.S.-led UNITAF phase made it look too easy,
facilitating the "mission creep" that produced UNOSOM II's vast nation-building
mandate. The sheer ease of intervention, combined with the mastery with which
it was initially conducted in Washington and in the field, helped produce the
slide toward a modern version of trusteeship over an ex-colonial territory,
triggering a violent backlash mounted by a powerful Somali faction.
Look more closely at what happened. The UNITAF mission was successful
during its too-brief deployment through April 1993. Establishing safety for
relief workers while keeping the warlords somewhat placated and off balance;
maintaining and demonstrating military primacy without making a permanent
adversary or national hero of any local actor; pushing the military factions
toward a locally led political process while opening up that process to
civilian elites and eschewing precise formulas; removing heavy weapons from
areas of conflict while fostering the restoration of police and government
functions -- these were undertakings of the highest order of delicacy in a
militarized and fragmented society like Somalia's. UNITAF's accomplishments far
exceeded the simple, publicly discussed goal of creating a "secure environment
for humanitarian relief." They required strong leadership and a well-oiled,
quick-response military-civilian bureaucracy.
But the coordinated and politically astute operating strategy of U.S.
Ambassador Robert B. Oakley and U.S. Marine General Robert Johnston (who both
had outstanding access to Washington) would be interrupted, first by the U.S.
presidential transition, and again during the handoff from UNITAF to UNOSOM II,
the entire field leadership of the U.S.-led intervention was replaced by a less
united and coherent operation reporting to U.N. headquarters. Another
discontinuity was the quick departure -- before the new UNOSOM II management
was even in place in Mogadishu -- of not only the previous UNITAF management
but many vital U.S. combat units.
Is it any wonder that things turned sour? Why expect a seamless transition
to U.N.-led peacekeeping to flow from a rancorous argument between Washington
and U.N. headquarters about whether the transfer should even take place and
whether the United States had completed its initial task? Such changes of
leadership, tradition, doctrine, personal chemistry, operating procedures,
policy instincts, and bureaucratic systems were bound to disrupt the
effectiveness and credibility of the military presence.
Another major discontinuity was, of course, the adoption of a sweepingly
ambitious new "nation-building" resolution by the Security Council (Resolution
814), which authorized UNOSOM II at the very moment existing management,
reporting channels, and capabilities were being transformed. The
nation-building resolution aimed explicitly at reestablishing Somalia's
political institutions and rehabilitating its economy as well as assuring
security throughout the country, not merely in the famine-afflicted south and
central zones. The changes raised Somali doubts about the operation's
objectives while creating opportunities to test its will. Between May 1993,
when the United Nations took over, and the October 3, 1993, debacle when U.S.
forces, under U.S. command, suffered 18 dead in a Mogadishu firefight, many of
UNITAF's accomplishments were lost. Also lost was the shallow and fragile U.S.
consensus on U.N. peace operations.
Somalia, having experienced several types of intervention and peacekeeping,
is hardly an ideal test case for judging U.N. peace operations. Like a
barometer, it has both shaped and reflected shifting U.S. and international
opinion about them.
Arguably, Somalia does not offer an ideal test of either the Bush concept
of limited humanitarian intervention or the evolving concepts of expanded
peacekeeping and peace enforcement based on the use-of-force authority provided
in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. The Somalia "failure" was less a failure of
either humanitarian intervention or muscular peacekeeping than a failure to
apply them steadily and wisely. The failure was of another order: strategic
confusion followed by a collapse of political will when the confusion led to
In Cambodia, Central America, Namibia, and now Mozambique, U.N. operations
have unquestionably given war-torn lands a chance to get on their feet. These
were complex operations conducted successfully under wide-ranging mandates. But
the United Nations' attempt at a militarily challenging "peace enforcement"
operation shows that it cannot manage complex political-military operations
when its own structure is an undisciplined and often chaotic set of rival
fiefdoms that resist unified command and control in the field at both the
civilian and military levels. Basic change is needed on the issues of
delegation to the field, unity of command in the field, and professional
military backstopping and oversight from U.N. headquarters. We already knew
these things about U.N. reform. After Somalia, we know them even
Equally important, Somalia underscores the need for improvement in the way
the United States -- the United Nations' leading member -- defines missions,
reviews and approves peacekeeping mandates, and approves U.N. force levels and
budgets. The United States and the United Nations overreached in Somalia when
they expanded the initial mandate without providing the means to carry it out.
They failed to resolve a raging debate over whether and how to disarm the
Somali factions. In the end, of course, the United States refused to take on
that task before handing it off to the U.N. command. UNITAF probably could have
done much more to demilitarize and disarm Somalia if the United States had been
prepared to make the necessary forces available for a longer period and had
maintained effective working relationships with the Somalis.
But realizing the more open-ended time frame, the additional resources
required to disarm the Somali factions, and the possible negative fallout on
the home front, both U.S. administrations strongly opposed it. The ball was
simply dropped by Washington, the U.N. secretary general, and the Security
Council in New York. As a result, the United Nations received a bolder mandate
than the one Bush had given UNITAF (and which Oakley and Johnston later
expanded on the ground) but was given woefully inadequate means for carrying it
out. These things should never have been permitted to happen. Either the
nation-building mandate should have been drastically scaled down or the means
to implement it should have been mobilized.
The Somalia episode suggests several lessons. It is obvious that the United
States and other leading nations (within or outside the United Nations) should
act through diplomacy (whether preventive, coercive, or mediatory) before
states fail and societies implode. Once men with guns seize the initiative, it
becomes more complex to accommodate the interests of their peculiar hierarchies
in addition tothose of the broader society and political system, and it becomes
more costly for external peacemakers to apply their will.
Somalia reinforces the point that the linkage between U.N. peacekeeping
mandates and the resources made available by member states must be better
understood by Security Council members so that they do not approve missions
that will expose U.N. peacekeepers to severe risk and the United Nations itself
to ridicule. At the same time, there is no excuse for underfunding and
undermanning missions that warrant U.S. support. We must remember that the
Security Council is a mirror of the actions, inactions, fudges, and fantasies
of its leading members, who can veto anything they do not like.
The clear shortcomings in the United Nations' capacity to manage
peacekeeping and especially peace enforcement argue strongly for several
approaches: U.N. institutional reform to end bureaucratic fiefdoms in the
field, create genuine unity of command, and beef up U.N. headquarters' ability
to manage and control military operations; restraint and selectivity in
undertaking missions that cross the line between traditional, consensual
peacekeeping and enforcement; and creativity in supporting their management.
Historically, U.N. operations have prospered when they enjoyed the dedicated,
attentive backing of one or more major powers. This was the case with the
far-reaching but successful Congo operation of the 1960s and the intricate,
multipurpose U.N. operations in Namibia, Cambodia, and Mozambique more
recently. By contrast, UNOSOM II demonstrates how a U.N. operation can fail if
it is orphaned by leading members.
Responsibility for making these operations succeed must be given to the
most experienced and imaginative people available. It is equally imperative to
conduct basic reviews if operations turn sour. Peacekeeping initiatives should
not be launched without some assurances of stability of leadership in the
field, some hope for continuity of backstopping in key capitals and New York,
and a clear hierarchy of accountability for the whole business. Changes in
either resources made available, including key combat components, or leadership
relationships and reporting channels between the field and key capitals must be
At the strategic level, the Somalia case raises the question of limits to
and criteria for U.S. and U.N. involvement in humanitarian operations,
political transitions from protracted civil conflicts, and efforts to restore
failed states. Can and should the United States insist on a carefully worded
"national interest" standard for support of and participation in such
operations? Can humanitarian action be sealed off from the politics of
peacemaking and the military implications of peace enforcement? Somalia cannot
answer these questions, but it highlights the need for debate.
By overreaching as dramatically as it did, the Security Council's March
1993 nation-building resolution caused a backlash at two levels. The sweep of
the mandate and the way it was implemented changed the Somali political posture
from humiliated acceptance of a helping hand to polarization and nationalist
martyrdom. In the United States, support for an initially popular undertaking
collapsed amid confusion about American purposes. Was this a humanitarian
mission, a manhunt for a wily warlord, or a nation-building program? After
Somalia, it is getting harder for Western leaders to rally their constituents
to go to war for a new world order.
That said, President Bush was right -- politically, strategically, and
ethically -- to launch Operation Restore Hope, and President Clinton was right
to support his decision. The judgment that U.S. forces could and should stop
humanitarian disaster in Somalia was a proper assertion of global leadership,
as evidenced by the long list of nations who pressed to join during the initial
phase UNITAF. As the end of the century nears, it is surely wise that we and
others broaden our understanding of national interest to include consideration
of interests related to global order (sanctity of borders, extension of the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) and global standards (avoiding genocide, mass
Operation Restore Hope was an act of human solidarity without regard to
race, religion, or region. That is why the Congress and the American people
supported it -- just as they supported the 1991 effort to protect Iraqi Kurds.
And that is why no one is especially proud of the U.S. role in inhibiting U.N.
action in Rwanda, the first victim of the post-Sorealia backlash. Just as it
cannot be U.S. policy to protect oil supplies but ignore genocide, it cannot be
U.S. policy to protect Kurds but ignore Tutsis.
If the criteria for initiating U.N. peaceoperations and humanitarian
intervention are not primarily geographic, then what are they? Some say that
the United States should not have intervened (or encouraged the United Nations
to do so) in Somalia unless it was also prepared to do so in Sudan, Tibet, and
Tajikistan. But we cannot view all disorders as equally threatening to our
global interests. The quest for consistency leads to a false choice between
doing nothing and indiscriminate interventionism.
No one realistically expects or wants the United States to act in every
scenario where action is possible. Americans are relative newcomers to U.N.
peace operations; many other nations play responsible, leading roles in them
and will continue to provide the bulk of the financing and manpower that make
them possible. Somalia was an exception both in the prominence of the roles the
United States played and in its dramatic impact on events. The question is
whether Americans will learn from Somalia or recoil from the experience -- and
from peace operations generally.
The basic criterion that the United States should apply in essentially
humanitarian cases is not obscure: Is a proposed operation likely to be
affective at an acceptable cost to those who will bear the burden
of intervention? Clearly, a wide range of factors must be examined: logistics,
terrain, the likelihood and nature of armed opposition to the intervention, the
role of humanitarian aid organizations, and the impact of intervention on their
The final lesson of Somalia may be the most humbling. Just as humanitarian
relief may disrupt a local economy, changing the stakes of conflict and even,
perversely, fueling it, military intervention may alter the local balance of
power. Operation Restore Hope was no exception. It temporarily strengthened
Somalia's vestigial civil society and challenged the warlords' political
monopoly. By freezing in place the factional strife, it also checked the
stronger factions and protected the weaker ones. But what is there to replace
this new status quo so that the old one does not return?
Somalia, in other words, suggests that there is no such thing as a purely
humanitarian operation. It calls attention to the question of how intervention
can translate into peacemaking so that something emerges to replace the
temporary status quo created by intervention. The Bush and Clinton
administrations insisted on a quick handoff to the United Nations, effectively
begging the question. (For a brief period, the UNITAF leaders improvised a
political settlement strategy that appeared promising, but it collapsed when
UNOSOM II soured.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that an appeal for
outside force must be accompanied by a political strategy for leashing the dogs
-- while healing the wounds -- of war.