Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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As officials tell it, the White House had begun to reassess what it was doing in Somalia about two weeks before last week's deadly attack. Concerned that the operation was being focused too narrowly on capturing Aidid, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake told Clinton the previous Friday that he was working up some options to shift the emphasis more toward a political solution, intensifying an effort that had begun Sept. 20 with a tough letter from Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Boutros-Ghali protesting the military emphasis. On Saturday, less than 24 hours before the fateful helicopter raid started, Christopher called Boutros-Ghali to urge a stepped-up effort to bring about a political settlement among various Somali factions, only to be told blandly, "We are already doing all that."

On Sunday afternoon, just before leaving for a California speechmaking trip, Clinton met with Lake in the White House. Lake talked mostly about Russia, though he did mention that there had been a fire fight in Mogadishu and some American casualties; that was about all anyone knew. Clinton included a paragraph in a speech Sunday night expressing his regrets about the deaths but calling the mission "very successful." By Monday morning Clinton, returning to his hotel in San Francisco after an early jog, learned that the situation was more serious. He took a conference call from Lake, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and two other advisers, who told him of the extent of casualties. "How did this happen?" Clinton demanded of Aspin, who put most of the blame on a U.N. command and control structure that had been unable to rush well-equipped troops to the Rangers' rescue. During another conference call later in the day, Counsellor David Gergen told Clinton about the video of the corpses being dragged through the streets. "We've got to get together with Congress," said Clinton, who instructed his aides to contact leaders of both parties. At Clinton's urging, Lake ordered his aides to accelerate their review of Somalia policy, and had a draft in hand by Monday night. Also on Monday, Lake called Oakley, the blunt-spoken retired ambassador who had done some effective political work early in the Somalia intervention, to get advice about a more active political approach.

Clinton had talked about cutting short his California trip, but concluded that it would look panicky. In a speech to the AFL-CIO in San Francisco and another in Los Angeles at a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fund raiser, he said little about Somalia or Russia either. As late as Wednesday, though, Clinton officiated at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House to mark the signing of a bill allowing federal employees to participate in political campaigns. "This is a very happy day for me," he remarked -- as public reaction to the ghastly pictures from Somalia was building.

Meanwhile, as the boss was flying home from California Tuesday, Christopher and a reluctant Aspin had been sent to brief congressional leaders on Russia (which drew only one question) and Somalia. In a mistaken attempt at Socratic dialogue, Aspin asked the lawmakers what they thought should be done. This disastrous performance managed only to convince the congressional leaders that the Administration had no clue as to what policy to pursue.

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