Crises ahead: nation building deferred – Editorial

James M. Wall

CLOSING THE door on the cold war reopened the door on the legacy of colonialism. That legacy will present complex problems which American presidents will confront well into the 21st century. Nationbuilding in former colonies of the Western powers was deferred during the decades when all U.S. foreign-policy decisions were filtered through the simplistic prism of anticommunism. Haiti and Somalia are the high-profile examples of nation-building deferred. The U.S. is being taunted by power-seeking military leaders in those two countries, and the Clinton administration, preoccupied with NAFTA and health care, is uncertain about how to respond. The U.S. may be the worlds only remaining superpower, but it has no strategy for helping developing nations find their identity as nation states.

Somalia has been dominated by outside forces since the beginning of colonialism—with its meshing of missionaries and tradespeople–in the 19th century, first by Italy, Germany and Great Britain and then after 1960 by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Bush, working through the United Nations, provided military support to assure the delivery of food to victims of starvation in December 1992, a humanitarian move that set a positive pattern for the post-cold-war era.

Haiti and Somalia both came to world attention through scenes of suffering: pictures of massive starvation in Somalia, and images of desperate Haitian “boat people” who risked drowning in overcrowded, often unseaworthy vessels to escape from military brutality and economic misery. The suffering was the result of decades of either colonial exploitation or cold-war manipulation. Somalia, strategically located on the Horn of Africa, was a pawn caught between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Haiti was victimized for decades by the two generations of Duvaliers, dictators supported by the U.S.

With the end of the cold war, the people of Somalia were left with an abundance of weapons, a serious shortage of food and water, and an internal battle for power between rival clan leaders. When starvation reached catastrophic levels and world media began to pay attention, President Bush dispatched a rescue mission with 28,000 military personnel. By the time President Clinton took office the U.S. assignment had begun to shift from the protection of food lines to the task of nation-building. This shift came after forces loyal to Mohammed Farah Aidid, head of the Somali National Alliance political party, were accused in the deaths of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. Aggressive UN military action led to the apprehension of several of Aidids top aides, but Aidid escaped capture. This shift from humanitarian support to the pursuit of Aidid was a serious error in judgment.

General Aidid’s capture or death became an obsession to Jonathan Howe, the retired American admiral who serves as a special UN envoy to Somalia. (It is to Bill Clinton’s credit that he chose not to demonize Aidid in order to rally U.S. public opinion the way George Bush demonized Saddam Hussein. ) The New York Times noted that Admiral l-Iowe “adopted Aidid as his Great White Whale.” (Howe insists that he is not obsessire about Ajdid but is merely carrying out UN directives.)

Whatever his motive, Howes vigorous lobbying on behalf of the UN with his colleagues in Washington apparently worked on the Deputies Committee, “a panel of subcabinet officials” in the White House who decided in late August to give Howe the contingent of Rangers and a group of Delta commandos he wanted. Since military force introduced into an area has a way of inevitably being put to use, not always to good results, it is not surprising that on October 3 an attempt by Rangers to capture Aidid led to the deaths of 18 Americans, the capture of a helicopter pilot, and the wounding of a score of Rangers. What followed that was inevitable in this era of instant media reporting.

Scenes of American bodies dragged through the streets flashed around the world. Newsmagazines once again featured covers with the image of yet another imprisoned American staring into a video camera. Immediately congressional critics of the Clinton policy demanded that U.S. forces be withdrawn before Somalia turned into “another Vietnam.” But the parallel with our venture in Southeast Asia is a false one. Our effort in Somalia is not related to a political ideological struggle. It began as a humanitarian effort and then, regrettably, turned into a personal vendetta against General Aidid–a vendetta in which numbers of Somali civilians have been killed.

President Clinton has wisely stepped back from the “hot pursuit” of Aidid. Now it is incumbent on the president and his advisers to go beyond an ad hoc policy to articulate a vision of Americas role in the world. He might begin by acknowledging that neither the UN nor the United States should be in the business of determining which factions should govern independent nations around the world. He might insist that the U.S. will respond with force only when our national interest is clearly at stake or when intervention can reasonably hope to correct violations of human rights. In any case, our response must be governed by a realistic hope for a successful resolution. (The ongoing warfare in the former Yugoslavia does not offer that realistic hope. )

In his articulation of his vision, the president can certainly point to the situations in Somalia and Haiti, two instances in which we responded to humanitarian needs. We initially became involved in Haiti when refugees, fleeing from oppressive military rule, endangered their own lives by sailing to the U.S. These refugees were reaching our borders in numbers we were not prepared to receive. The military leaders who have seized power in Haiti have done so in violation of democratic elections. It is not for the U.S. to determine who should rule in Haiti, but it can urge the UN to respond to the military overthrow of a democratically elected president. The current UN-endorsed blockade of Haiti is, for now, the proper response.

Somalia and Haiti are only the first in a long line of crises that will confront Bill Clinton. He dare not continue to respond to such developments on an ad hoc basis, driven by events that attract television coverage. The Clinton administration must announce a foreign policy that will set goals and parameters, based on Americas moral vision, as well as a pragmatic concern for the security and wellbeing of American forces and the American people. As the worlds remaining superpower, we have the moral responsibility to support local populations with resources and guidance so that they might determine their own future. This can be done without massive American military intervention.

COPYRIGHT 1993 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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