Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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The exact mix of motives that prompted George Bush to launch the Somali intervention is still not altogether clear. The immediate causes were, of course, ghastly TV pictures of famine in that country and U.N. Secretary- General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's pleas for help to get food past the guns of armed gangs into the hands of the starving in a country that had no real government and practically no order of any sort. In addition, Bush no doubt wanted to go out in a blaze of glory as a world statesman, and subordinates were glad that the move served as a sort of therapy for the funk he was in after his election defeat. Some other possible motives: to prove to Muslims, outraged by U.S. unwillingness to stop the slaughter of their co-religionists in Bosnia, that the U.S. could come to their aid, and at the same time to reduce pressure on the Pentagon to get more involved in Bosnia. In any case, at a National Security Council meeting the day before Thanksgiving, aides laid three options before Bush: the first was an expanded peacekeeping operation, with about 3,500 American troops joining the Pakistanis participating only in a supporting role. A second was an expanded peacemaking operation (distinguished from peacekeeping because in some circumstances the troops could shoot first); the U.S. would supply airlift and other support, but no ground troops. The third option, unexpectedly prepared by the Pentagon, was to send in a whole U.S. division under U.N. auspices but American command and control. Bush surprised everyone by immediately choosing that option. His reasoning: only an all-American force could go in quickly, and there was no time to lose; the famine, disease and fighting were snuffing out 1,000 lives a day.

There were misgivings from the start. In a cable to the State Department, Smith Hempstone, ambassador to the neighboring country of Kenya, called Somalia a "tar baby," and presciently added, "Somalis, as the Italians and British discovered to their discomfiture, are natural-born guerrillas. They will mine the roads. They will lay ambushes. They will launch hit-and-run attacks."

Also disquieting, the U.S. and Boutros-Ghali had trouble negotiating what it was that the American troops would be officially requested by the U.N. to do. The American story is that Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told Boutros-Ghali "that we were going to do something very precise and limited and then get out," in the words of a senior aide to Eagleburger. Boutros- Ghali accepted but then "moved the goalposts," says the official, demanding that the Americans disarm Somali gangs, venture into the countryside and the north of the country, away from the Mogadishu area, and stay for an unlimited period. The tale heard in U.N. corridors is very different: it is of the Americans waffling over whether to disarm the Somalis and whether to move into the north or stay put, combined with demands to start getting out almost as soon as they got in. The alleged U.S. dithering at one point caused the Secretary-General to exclaim, "All my experience tells me not to trust the U.S. You are unpredictable and change your minds too often!" Whoever is right, the discord was an unhappy omen of future trouble.

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