A TOP United States official visiting Somalia recently was told this story: One of the country's many young gunmen, in search of food, shot a woman carrying a bag of rice. When he stepped forward to claim the booty, he discovered he had killed his own wife.
Apocryphal or not, the tale accurately describes the extent of Somali lawlessness and despair. Civil society no longer exists; only people with guns or armed protectors eat. The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of anarchy. The result: the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.
Final realization of this state of affairs is what seems to lie behind the US decision to offer troops for the protection of Somali food aid. Attempts to send relief through existing channels are just no longer working. Fighting between warlords is blocking aid flights from airports, keeping aid trucks off highways, and - worst of all - forcing aid ships to stay at sea.
"It's going to require some kind of stronger military action there to safeguard these relief supplies," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Nov. 27.
In crossing the line between simply sending food and C-130s to sending the Marines, the Bush administration has taken a big step. For one thing, officials are offering the largest deployment of US force under a United Nations flag since the Korean War. For another, they are ignoring the sovereignty of a nation, albeit a battered one, in the name of humanitarian concern.
Pressure for intervention in other disasters, such as the Balkans and Liberia, will likely increase. "This is a pretty dramatic change. I'm not sure it's entirely a good one," says Carol Lancaster, an Africa expert at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
As of this writing, the UN had taken no final decision on the US offer to send up to a division's-worth of force, roughly 20,000 troops, as part of an international Somalia effort. Reports from the UN indicated that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was likely to approve some sort of expanded military effort.
In Somalia, both major warlords who control the capital of Mogadishu, Ali Mahdi Muham-mad and Gen. Muhammad Farah Aidid, have welcomed the US offer.
About 500 Pakistani soldiers are already in Somalia operating under the UN flag. But they have been largely ineffective, as uncooperative warlords have blocked their widespread deployment. The Security Council has also voted to send another 3,000 troops from various nations, but they have not yet arrived.
Many Africa experts and relief officials applauded the sudden US offer of armed help. It was seen as a welcome exception to the recent US tendency to focus most of its foreign-policy energy on developments and strife in Eastern Europe and Russia. Considering the natural ebbing of energy that characterizes a lame-duck presidency, it was also seen as something of a surprise.
"I can't honestly see how there can be any opposition to this," says Mohamed Kahlil, a former high official of the Sudanese government now in Washington as a fellow of the US Institute of Peace.
IT is possible to have a military deployment to Somalia that will be able to stabilize the situation, and not become an open-ended commitment, Mr. Kahlil says. In any case, the state of decay in Somalia now means that inevitably "the world is going to become more involved there," he says.
Some aid officials, however, actually are not happy about the prospective increase in US involvement. They feel that US troops could act as an affront and incitement, turning Somalis against all outside intervention, including relief distribution, and could endanger the safety of their in-country staff. A statement issued in London by the Save The Children organization claimed "imposing troops on Somalia as suggested by the United States would be a disaster."
Professor Lancaster says that while humanitarian concerns may have prompted the administration's offer of troops, the action appears to be a hasty one and leaves many questions: "What do you do if you start to take casualties? Or, what do you do if you succeed? Do you have a plan for an interim government?."
Reportedly, administration officials see a phased operation, with heavy US forces eventually giving way to several thousand non-US UN troops, and finally to locally hired guards able to protect well-established relief efforts.
Then there will be the inevitable comparisons of the US effort in Somalia to its reticence in other world disaster areas. It is easy to make a case that the Balkan situation is much harder. There, well-armed insurgents lurk in terrain that is inhospitable to fighting. But there are other nations where the situation is more similar to Somalia - such as battered Liberia or Zaire.