Robert Oakley's Mission to Somalia Took Courage

LAST week Robert Oakley, the special United States envoy to Somalia, completed his mission. During his three months in the country, he demonstrated the risks, skills, and opportunities involved in peacemaking in today's troubled world.

Ambassador Oakley not only preceded the US troops ashore in Mogadishu last December but also paved their way into the dangerous interior. He had the advantage of prior experience in the country and some acquaintances among key Somalis. The mission also was strengthened by Somali awareness of the imminent arrival of substantial US and allied forces. Nevertheless, to go unarmed and virtually alone into a chaotic melee of armed factions took a special form of confidence and determination.

Oakley would be the first to admit he had no monopoly on courage. Also at risk were soldiers of several nations, relief workers toiling under deplorable conditions, and Somalis working with Americans and others to repair their country in the face of factional threats.

But more than courage was involved. Oakley had a clear sense of his mission. It was not to rebuild Somalia; it was to make the country safer for relief convoys to disaster areas. It would have been easy for an envoy facing a multitude of problems to be diverted into the politics surrounding the future government and economy of the country. Pressures on him to do so must have been intense. Oakley saw the nation's reconstruction as the responsibility of the Somalis and, with refreshing candor, often said s o.

Oakley's mission, to be successful, required a firm determination not to be used by the warring factions. Once the American entry was announced, factions maneuvered to be seen as his friend. One leader in particular, Mohammed Aideed, sought to give the impression that he alone among the "warlords" had US support. To fend off such embraces required a polite skepticism toward proffers of cooperation. Oakley understood that the country's future could be built on other elements - women and village elders, fo r example - and, working with relief agencies, he was successful in offering opportunities for participation and leadership.

A mission such as Oakley's also required patience and an immunity to frustration. The simplest acts of living in a devastated country called for innovation and endurance. In seeking to bring peace, the envoy was dealing with faction leaders with scant regard for the truth who would make promises one day and break them the next. Despite the humanitarian nature of the mission, disarmed Somalis, resenting a loss of power and profit, turned on the Americans. Suspicious Somalis sought ulterior motives in the foreign presence and were quick to see conspiracies in every gesture not in their favor. Oakley rode out these twists and turns with equanimity; the gradual recognition among the Somalis that he would not easily be fooled or co-opted created broad respect - even if among some it was probably grudging.

Many serious problems remain for Oakley's successor, Robert Gosende, an experienced diplomat who knows Somalia and was part of Oakley's team in December and January. Arms are plentiful, and factions continue to resist concessions that would bring peace. But Oakley, working closely with US and allied forces, opened broad areas for relief, provided an atmosphere for resuming normal trade, encouraged participation of the factions in peace talks, and laid the groundwork for the United Nations to assume the p eacekeeping task in May. These are impressive accomplishments in a country that is still in a state of total disintegration.

In entering a country ahead of troops and facing danger and chaos, Oakley has followed in the footsteps of other American diplomats. Members of the often maligned and denigrated Foreign Service have frequently displayed this particular brand of courage. Ambassador Robert Murphy landed in North Africa before allied troops in 1942. Ambassador Robert McClintock was on the beach to welcome US Marines in Lebanon in 1958. Ambassador Nathaniel Howell held the US embassy in Kuwait against Iraqi provocations in 1 991. Other cases could be mentioned. Robert Oakley in Somalia has added luster to a fine tradition.

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