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About "Ambush in Mogadishu"



Somalia, a large (about the size of Texas) but desperately poor country in the Horn of Africa, was strange terrain for proxy wars between friends and enemies of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1969, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre seized control, instituted a nominally "socialist" regime, and established friendly relations with Moscow. After an unsuccessful Somali invasion into Ethiopia's Ogaden region in 1977, the Soviet Union sided with arch-enemy Ethiopia. In a quick change of partners, Washington embraced Somalia and took Moscow's place as the main source of military and foreign aid after 1978.

Already reeling from two decades of misrule and corruption, the country truly began to disintegrate instead of merely teetering on the brink of anarchy. Indeed by 1991 social scientists had coined the term "failed state" to describe a country that no longer manifested the control and discipline that are supposed to characterize a modern government. The fact that virtually all Somalis share a common language, culture, and religion was apparently insufficient to slow the total breakdown in society.

Drought exacerbated the erosion of both central and local authority, with over two million refugees and widespread starvation. Some 300,000 people died in 1991-92 alone, and another one million people were threatened by famine when the U.S. began an airlift of foodstuffs in August 1992.

The end of the Cold War made possible what soon would become a massive intervention led by 28,000 American ground troops. Until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet Union itself, the United Nations was paralyzed in the security arena because of the confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Suddenly, the UN enjoyed the unanimity of views among the great powers that its founders had desired in 1945. The world organization had approved a U.S.-led coalition to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and to protect Kurds in northern Iraq from being decimated by the government in Baghdad.

And in December 1992 the UN Security Council approved the establishment in Somalia of "a secure environment for humanitarian relief" and welcomed Washington's offer. Lame duck President George Bush had been informed by the Pentagon that the United States could save as many as a million lives with a large-scale military operation. At first the intervention calmed Somalis and made food distribution easier--not an inconsiderable accomplishment in a country in which one of eight citizens had already died from starvation or clan warfare. But soon "mission creep" (or the enlargement of the original terms of reference) began as American forces sought to impose order and even engaged in a manhunt for one clan leader, complete with "wanted" posters offering a reward. "Nation-building" (or helping to rehabilitate and reconstruct a war-torn country) became a dirty word as fifteen warring factions led by warlords and composed of teenagers chewing Khat (a local narcotic) led to what one relief official in the program compares to "a Mad Max film."

The episode depicted in this FRONTLINE was a turning point in American foreign policy. On October 3, 1993, in the worst shoot-out since the Vietnam War, approximately 1,000 Somalis and 18 U.S. soldiers died. After the downing of the Black Hawk helicopter and a modern-day Alamo, the bodies of a few of the mutilated Americans were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Media coverage led to revulsion from the same U.S. public that had responded so supportively less than a year earlier to other images, namely of swollen-bellied children covered with flies.

The benevolent urge to "do something" was rapidly replaced by a more pessimistic inclination to "do nothing," or at least very little. The giddy euphoria of the initial post-Cold War period has given way to a depressing defeatism. The bitter disappointment with Operation Restore Hope had a corrosive effect on American foreign policy. The Clinton administration inherited the Somalia operation, but during the electoral campaign and shortly after the inauguration it had in fact pronounced itself in favor of "assertive multilateralism," or the use of American troops for United Nations peacekeeping operations in troubled spots around the world. As a result of the aborted raid, President Clinton not only ordered the withdrawal of American troops within six months but also sent his policy analysts back to their drawing boards to articulate a new policy.

By the time they returned with Presidential Decision Directive 25 in May 1994, Washington had effectively scrapped plans to contribute troops to armed international interventions. Meanwhile, to the southwest of Somalia in Rwanda, Hutus were massacring what may have been up to one million Tutsis and other moderate Hutus.

Learning lessons from "Ambush in Mogadishu" is important if the United States and the world are to respond better to the rising number of tragedies that threaten humanity.

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