In diplomatic circles mention of Somalia provokes embarrassment and avoidance behavior. During the three years since the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia, the US has minimized its involvement there and maintained a low profile.
That policy, a reaction to an intervention in Somalia that went awry, may have had some justification in the past, but the time is ripe for reassessment and for the US to contribute to peace in Somalia with minimal exposure. We owe it to Somalis and to ourselves to complete what we started in late 1992.
The US doesn't need to assume the role of peacemaker or peacekeeper. There are too many mediators stumbling over each other already. With encouragement from the Eastern African regional organization (IGAD), Ethiopia is the most energetic. But officials from Egypt, Yemen, Kenya, and Italy are also eager to be seen as midwives for a Somalia peace settlement.
While limited success has been achieved through these initiatives, Somalis see some of these actors as primarily serving their own interests. Moreover, the UN has been largely discredited in Somalia because of its mistakes in 1993-95. In contrast, the US still maintains considerable credibility, and Somalis lament the lack of US interest.
After seven years of civil war and five years with no government, recent developments give grounds for cautious optimism. Large parts of Somalia have achieved regional stability with reconstruction and economic revival already evident.
The three principal factional leaders in Mogadishu, Ali Mahdi, Hussein Aideed (the son of late Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed), and Osman Ato, are in regular communication and seem increasingly inclined to work out their differences.
The Ethiopian orchestrated negotiations have sketched a partial framework for power sharing among the competing clans. But Aideed and the leader of Somaliland, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, refuse to participate. And the plan embraces only factional leaders and excludes elders, women's groups, business people, and religious leaders, all necessary participants in shaping Somalia's future.
Dialogue among factional leaders needs to continue, and reconstruction in the regions needs reinforcement. But the most critical next step is a carefully prepared and broadly supported peace conference. Ethiopia is sponsoring one in late October, but Hussein Aideed hasn't been involved, and as a result this conference may heighten rather than reduce tensions.
To be successful, a peace conference needs to be sponsored and planned by a broadly inclusive group of as many as 1,000 Somalis. It would last months and would need a full discussion of the many outstanding issues like power sharing, governmental structure, a constitution, the role of the regions in relation to the center, return of displaced persons, return of confiscated property, compensation for atrocities committed, and reconciliation processes.
Somali ability to commit to and organize such a complex conference is not a certainty. But this is the next step toward peace, and the broad mass of Somalis are eager for such a step. American involvement, confined to active endorsement and financial support for food, lodging, and transportation, could help assure broad Somali participation.
If Somali leaders demonstrate their preparedness and ability to proceed, American encouragement could make a critical difference in helping Somalia get back on its feet. With little expense and minimal risk we could help complete the process that the UN and the US botched and aborted in UNISOM II in 1993-95.
* David Smock, who visited Somalia in June, directs the grant program and coordinates African activities at the United States Institute of Peace.