The Somalia Syndrome

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There is a brief description early in a new book on Africa's wars by American journalist Scott Peterson in which the author and another reporter carry the body of a woman who has been shot by U.N. peacekeepers through the streets of Mogadishu to hospital. After dropping her off, Peterson writes, his colleague's khakis are "smeared with her blood like a painter's apron." The scene is one of many that underscore how close Peterson was to key events that shaped the course of peacekeeping in the post-cold war world. A photographer and writer who covered Africa for Britain's Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, Peterson has an instinct for frontline reporting. His account, entitled Me Against My Brother (Routledge, 357 pages), includes sections on Sudan's civil war and the Rwandan genocide. But the chapters on Somalia are the most illuminating. As Western countries try to sort out what to do with another U.N. intervention gone wrong, this time in Sierra Leone, the book is a reminder of the failed promise of Somalia's Operation Restore Hope, and how its lessons are still being misconstrued by Western policymakers.

Unlike previous accounts of the Somalia debacle, Peterson does not dwell on the October 1993 firefight that killed 18 American Rangers and 312 Somali. Instead he focuses on the events that led up to the battle, most notably a raid three months earlier by U.S. helicopters on a meeting of clan elders in the capital, Mogadishu. In that attack, part of the manhunt for warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, anti-tank missiles killed between 20 (official U.N. estimate) and 54 (Red Cross sources) Somali, turning the tide against the U.N. operation for good. Peterson experienced the shift in Somali public opinion firsthand. Arriving minutes after the U.S. troops left the scene that morning, he recalls: "The mob surrounded me ... my mind raced uncontrollably knowing instinctively there would be no running away." Slashed across the back of the head, he tore himself free only after blurting out, "I'm British!" (He is not.) Four other journalists who then arrived were beaten to death. Peterson contends that the U.S.-led, U.N.-ordered, attack qualifies as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions because it targeted civilians without offering the prospect of concrete and direct military advantage.

The book chronicles how U.N. and U.S. officials lost the strand of peacekeeping and ended up viewing Somali not as victims but rather as the enemy. "It was a bloody war, an up-front and personal kind of war," said U.N. intelligence director Lieut. Colonel Kevin McGovern. One telling statistic: of the billions spent in Somalia from 1992-95, less than 4% of that money found its way into the local economy. The profits amassed by U.S. defense contractor Brown & Root building facilities for U.N. staff exceeded the amount set aside to rebuild Somalia's infrastructure. Even so, U.S. Major General Thomas Montgomery, on his last day in the country, proclaimed that history would judge the U.S. mission a "great success."

Of course, Somalia has been remembered as anything but. The fear of casualties (heightened by a videotape of U.S. bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu) led directly to the U.S. decision not to intervene in Rwanda. But the situations were hardly comparable. "For anyone who had been to Somalia and Rwanda," writes Peterson "there were few parallels: in Somalia the U.N. created its own war and lost, in Rwanda saving lives could often have been achieved by simply being present." Later President Clinton apologized for the U.S. inaction and swore that the West would never turn its back again. But those same jitters persist today about Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Peterson's account makes clear that the Somalia operation failed because it singled out one warlord when the goal should have been to undermine all warlords, or at least to refrain from favoritism. He notes how the U.N. mission head, retired U.S. Admiral Jonathan Howe, defended his get-Aidid policy by quoting enthusiastic support from "Somali leaders," failing to acknowledge that those leaders were thugs who stood to profit most from Aidid's removal. The problem, Peterson argues, is not that the West got involved in Somalia, but that, politically, it didn't get involved enough.

The tale has its heroes as well. Peterson tells of Captain Mbate Diagne of Senegal, one of the rump force of blue helmets left behind in Rwanda after the U.N. withdrew most of its troops. Diagne personally rescued more than 100 Tutsi even as hundreds of thousands were being massacred around him, before being shot dead himself. It is such men who shoulder the burden of U.N. peacekeeping in Africa today. They are the West's "low-cost solution" to Africa's problem. They are ill-equipped and often saddled with unrealistic objectives by the Security Council. And as long as wealthier countries are unwilling to move past the trauma and learn the right lessons of Somalia, they are all Africa will get.

Andrew Purvis was TIME's Africa Bureau Chief from 1992-1996