WASHINGTON — TO many people around the United States, ``Somalia'' has become a synonym for ``debacle.'' The casualties suffered by troops battling Somali militia, followed by a congressional uproar and withdrawal of most US personnel, made the whole experience look like an example of post-cold-war overreaching - a humanitarian intervention too far.
This image has only been reinforced by events in Somalia since US participation in United Nations peacekeeping there ended in March. Factional fighting in Mogadishu is increasing, with the security situation now so bad that the White House may soon withdraw remaining US personnel.
But some real good was accomplished by the US going into Somalia, claim ex-US officials who were involved in the effort. The original introduction of US troops broke a cycle of famine and saved countless lives.
Operation Restore Hope also provided valuable lessons applicable to future peacekeeping operations, claim the former officials in a report on their experience.
Learning from mistakes
``The real lessons of Somalia create reasonable hope that can be built upon in making humanitarian intervention and assertive peacekeeping wise and steady tools in managing international crises,'' says the report by the US Institute of Peace.
Right now the situation in Somalia, especially the capital of Mogadishu, looks dire. Civil war is on the verge of reigniting as militia leaders stockpile arms. The 18,000 UN peacekeepers remaining in the country are focusing on the protection of UN and relief personnel and relief convoys, while skirting clan violence as much as possible. Political reconciliation is moving at a ``glacially slow pace,'' Assistant Secretary of State George Moose told Congress last week. The 20 remaining US diplomats and their platoon of Marine protectors may be withdrawn at any moment.
But rebuilding is proceeding in many outlying areas of a country that was a complete disaster in November 1992 when then-President Bush ordered the US expedition into Somalia. Famine had reached such proportions two years ago that in the southern city of Baidoa the death rate was 300 per day.
The insertion of large numbers of US troops broke the famine-chaos vicious cycle, said Chester Crocker, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, at a recent seminar in Washington.
Lives saved for two years
``We saved two years worth of dead women and children in that country. That's a lot of people,'' Mr. Crocker said.
At its height, the intervention worked because US diplomacy worked hard at treating all Somali factions equally, while maintaining enough strength to deter any challenge of force.
``The Somalis understood ... that we had tremendous military power, that overall it was being used for their benefit, and that a tremendous amount of restraint was being exercised,'' said Robert Oakley, special envoy to Somalia for both Bush and President Clinton.
According to these former officials, things began to go wrong when the US officially handed authority back to the UN in the spring of 1993, while the UN Security Council - with US backing - embraced new goals of ``nation-building'' and ``peace enforcement.''
Warlord Mohamed Aideed, sensing that the UN now planned to marginalize him but that the international community's will was also declining, began to confront peacekeepers with force. The situation deteriorated rapidly from there, culminating in the disastrous October raid in which 18 US soldiers were killed, the subsequent cease-fire, and US withdrawal.
Among the lessons that Crocker, Oakley, and Oakley's former deputy John Hirsch draw from the Somali intervention are these:
* Preventive diplomacy needs to come into wider and more expert use. The world needs to both recognize diplomatic windows of opportunity when they occur, and decide what kind of negotiation might be appropriate.
* The possibility for interventions by non-UN coalitions, including regional groups such as the Organization for American States, should be enhanced. This could avoid both UN-style gridlock and the echo of colonialism that comes with unilateral action by Western powers.
* The UN's bureaucracy needs to be streamlined if it is to be able to handle fast-moving situations such as Somalia. In addition, all parties must seek agreement on goals and means.
* There must be clarity of military command, and an unambiguous policy of fast and overwhelming use of force. At the same time, peacekeepers must avoid the appearance of taking sides.
* Interventions should have specific, realistic goals that reflect available resources. Military force used must be more than sufficient to support the effort.
* Public support has to be strong enough to sustain the intervention through possible casualties.