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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 145 | Agosto 1993



Somalia: Lessons for the South

The North is not combating the poverty of the countries to the South. Rather it attacks the poor. No longer is there any discussion about whether to intervene or not – the only discussion is how, where and under what circumstances the U.S. should intervene. Will the U.N. of the 90s be like the O.A.S. of the 60s? Has the Latinamericanization of the world begun?

Alejandro Bendaña

To begin with, television screens around the world were inundated with daily images of emaciated children and entire populations dying of hunger. Next, international public opinion was mobilized against the Somali "warlords" who made it impossible to distribute food to the famine victims. Finally came the Bush administration's hasty decision to send US troops to Somalia in order to "return hope." The retreat of the so called bands in the face of the foreign invasion meant putting off the bloodbath, but the US diplomats' attempt to establish a new government resulted in failure. The following chapter was thus inevitable: a military conflict between occupation troops and Somalis.

"Humanitarian" Policy

Independent of the humanitarian merits of "Operation Return Hope" carried out by the United States in Somalia, the new doctrine being invoked to stage US police actions under the United Nations banner is a dangerous one. In addition to its role as policeman of the "new" world order, the US is now adding another as military guarantor of the well being of the world's poor.

What is the significance of the military occupation of Somalia? Nothing taking place in that African country is divorced from the process by which all countries of the South have, as an everyday occurrence, seen their sovereign rights and faculties reduced in economic and political terms in the post Cold War era. In Somalia, we are seeing the total abrogation of such a country's right to sovereignty for the first time. The CIA has even recommended that Somalia become a United Nations protectorate, returning to virtual colonial status under the watchful eye of "Western civilization." If today that happens in Somalia, will the formula next be applied in the Sudan, Mozambique, Armenia, Bosnia, Haiti...?
The action in Somalia opens a new stage in the war that the North has begun against the multi dimensional "disorder" existing in Africa, Latin America and Asia, not to mention Eastern Europe, which has effectively become part of the South.

A war of the North against poverty not against the poor would be unobjectionable in moral terms. It would be a just historic retribution by the old colonial powers the United States included who contributed to the disintegration, militarization, impoverishment and establishment of dictatorships in many of our countries, particularly throughout Africa.

The tragedy is that the North, and Washington in particular, continues to think that the world's problems can be solved at gunpoint, with new military doctrines and punitive actions against the poor.

Who Should Intervene?

Nobody with any conscience could oppose a strictly humanitarian intervention collectively carried out by international organizations with the aim of saving tens of thousands of innocent people from starvation. Ideally, it would be the countries from the region itself in this case, the African nations who would call for the formation of this military force to guarantee the supply of emergency aid, with the authorization of the UN Security Council and the support of the local civilian population. This has not been the case in Somalia. We have instead seen a tremendous military deployment by US armed forces, under the UN banner but with only symbolic participation by other nations.

As it did in the 1991 Gulf War, the US has once again assumed the role of international gendarme, effectively relegating the UN Security Council to an observer role. The logic is the same as it was two years ago: a task must be carried out, and only the Pentagon is capable of seeing it through. But to do so effectively, the logic goes, the United States must also have control of the operation and define its parameters.

US objectives go beyond those spelled out in the UN Security Council resolutions and what has been publicly explained as the way to reimpose "order" in Somalia. The sad thing is to observe how the Security Council and the General Secretary himself have failed to seize the initiative and directly mobilize the international community to lend indispensable material and political support, including military contingents which would act under UN command. They have stepped back under the mistaken premise that political decisions will be made at the multilateral level.

This is the sense of the UN resolution, which calls on the United States to create "a secure environment" for food distribution. In practical terms, this could well mean anything from "confiscating" the arms in the hands of Somali combatants to installing a new government and army.

In other words, it falls to the United States and only to the United States to define the nature and length of the occupation. Diplomatic circles in the UN and even The New York Times itself noted that the US rejected the recommendations of third countries that "specific and easily measurable criteria" be put on troop presence.

Why did the Security Council itself not impose limits? This organization has its own structures and mechanisms for restraint, but the Pentagon staunchly opposes submitting itself to them. In fact, the military operation was already underway when the Council voted to "authorize" it. The reality is that in the new unipolar world, only the United States engages in demonstrations of force.

Some of the nonaligned nations and China a member of the Security Council managed to insert references to the "exceptional character" of the Somalian situation in the Council resolution and to insist on greater respect for the authority of the Security Council and the Secretary General, in whose name the actions were being undertaken. But in fact, this effort did not achieve its purpose. The resolution approved on December 3, like the one approved in the Iraq case, has a dangerous ambiguity. It extends approval to the unilateral operation scheme conceived of and organized by the Pentagon and authorizes the United States to use "all necessary means" that is, military force without establishing either time limits or restrictions on types of actions, at the same time as it approves "facilitating the process of a political solution under the auspices of the United Nations."
It is true that neither the African nations nor the United Nations itself could assume the costs of a military operation to control Somalia's key ports, roads and airports. Nevertheless, if the United States would bring its payments to the world organization up to date and assume the cost of the operation together with the world's other rich countries, the UN's dependency on the Pentagon would not be so acute.

Moreover, the United States is not the only country with the necessary resources and military capacity. In his December 4 speech, President Bush invoked logistical criteria to explain the operation's eminently US character, alleging that "only the United States has the capacity to rapidly and efficiently deploy a large security force in such a distant place." However, both France and Great Britain also have this capacity, put to the test during the Gulf War and, in Great Britain's case, the Malvinas war.

All this leads to the conclusion that the United States needs to justify and flaunt its status as a superpower and hegemonic nation. Leadership on the part of the European nations, NATO itself, or the Security Council and the African Nations would be an attack against this new logic of unipolarity.

A New Intervention Doctrine?

The intervention in Somalia has implications even more serious than those of the Gulf War. With Somalia, Washington proclaims for itself the role of seeing justice done throughout the world the right to carry out what President Bush called "God's work." In so doing, it marginalizes in practice if not formally the very mechanisms established by the UN Charter to safeguard world peace.

In today's world, the situations demanding "humanitarian intervention" multiply daily. But these spark no crises of conscience in the North, except when specific interests are at stake and the media representing some of these interests call on the governments of the North to undertake "decisive" actions. In the Sudan, Liberia, Bosnia and other places, chaos is the daily fare, and in Cambodia the UN peacekeeping effort is endangered by the armed resistance of Pol Pot's army. But times have changed when Vietnam put a stop to the genocide in Cambodia in 1978, the countries that today preach "humanitarian" intervention furiously invoked the principle of non intervention.

The fact is that not even the US government itself, which made the decision to intervene, has finished fleshing out its new doctrine of intervention. It has not yet articulated a discourse that clarifies when "militarized assistance" should be sent to a given country. According to The New York Times, the Bush doctrine "seems a recipe for endless interventions by an unwilling global cop; it needs further definition."

A Dangerous Precedent

The consequences of all this are very grave indeed for the United Nations. The largest military humanitarian operation in history is beyond its authority and control and sets a dangerous precedent in a world increasingly plagued by hunger. To the degree that the pacification or humanitarian operations are neither multilateral nor effectively subordinated to collective bodies, the UN loses credibility and, with that, its humanitarian potential.

The precedent is dangerous because, according to a dictum from Washington and the Security Council, duly reinforced with the horrifying television images of emaciated children, the United States is intervening in the name of God and the UN. Yet what it is really doing is intervening to defend the "new" order, which will not tolerate the chaos and instability born of the injustices provoked by the old order.

Underlying Motives

Bush's Last Stand. The intervention in Somalia began months after a number of African countries, international humanitarian organizations and the UN General Secretary himself denounced the chaotic situation there. But not until after the US elections did Washington unilaterally decided to spearhead a humanitarian operation in that country, defining everything down to the last detail including the tangential role the UN and third countries were to play. Suspicions that Bush orchestrated this gargantuan police operation as his last hurrah seem to be well founded. Bush got the US into Somalia and left the problem of getting out to the incoming Clinton administration.

The Pentagon's Interests. Nobody is unaware that the US military industrial complex has been severely questioned since the collapse of the Soviet Union and badly needs to redefine its raison d'etre in the post Cold War world. Thanks to the Iraqi regime's irresponsibility and the Europeans' unorganized response to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, the Pentagon has been able to put itself forward as the last hope in this new world disorder.

This is a new image for the world: humanitarianism has military requirements that the Pentagon should, can and wants to fulfill. If the UN Security Council cannot pull off its own large scale humanitarian operations, this role falls to the US armed forces, which will follow US designed actions and be under US control.

New US Domestic Consensus. President Bush's political advisers likely came to the conclusion that a military commitment to Somalia would not contribute to their electoral campaign. Afterwards was a whole other thing. In fact, the media had been pressuring Bush to intervene in Somalia. This pressure for greater involvement increased from different quarters until it forged a domestic consensus. It first came from the US right, which proposed sidestepping both the UN and the concept of sovereignty, proclaiming the right and "responsibility" of the only superpower left in the world today to quell anarchy anywhere it becomes necessary.

What is very serious is that calls for intervention also came from liberal quarters, thus forging a new consensus for this era. It is similar to what existed during the Cold War, and gives renewed force to the longstanding aggressiveness of US foreign policy.

Both the right and the so called left are pushing the US government into defining a new interventionist doctrine that will enjoy consensus within the power structure. What is of concern is that the debate is not about whether to intervene, but only how, where and under what circumstances.

The major media, the system's intellectuals and the government itself are all starting from the same premise: the US role as the only remaining superpower imposes upon it the "duty" and the possibility to right the wrongs of the world, from the ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia to the hunger racking Somalia. The old line moralism that has long been an underpinning of US foreign policy is thus gathering new strength. It is a moralism that insists on combating a diabolical enemy, even if that enemy is not as starkly and monolithically defined as when communism existed. "A velvet glove backed by an iron fist of military force, a United Nations army of conscience," was former President Reagan's recommendation in December.

Where Next?

It is Somalia's turn today. But hundreds of thousands of war and ecological disaster victims also need humanitarian assistance in Mozambique, Liberia and the Sudan. If the US claims for itself the right to impose solutions and divine punishments, are not all the autochthonous forces governments or liberation movements in those and other countries that are struggling to resolve their problems thus in danger? Who is to define the parameters that determine when international intervention is justified?
And what type of intervention? Although the lives of millions of human beings are above and beyond sovereignty, it is the job of the International Red Cross to act on behalf of the victims, but without taking sides in a given internal conflict.

To be effective, humanitarian intervention must take the form of disinterested collaboration and not one of foreign imposition. Throughout history, such imposition has been the rule in poor nations, particularly those which, like Somalia, are strategically near the Middle East. Independent of the good intentions that some US circles may have, there has never been a conflict in which the US has intervened without acting in its own interests and clearly taking sides.

The US troops may well assure the delivery of some food to the Somali population, but the root problem is not the food shortage. It is the political conditions that, along with the natural conditions, provoked an internal war, scarcity and hunger. The United States is largely responsible for those political conditions, and for the military path they have taken, by drawing Somalia into the East West conflict and plying it with weapons. The policies promoted by the US Agency for International Development provoked yet another aspect of the problem, by forcing the countries of the South to eliminate farm subsidies and thus making them more dependent on food imports from the North which continues to subsidize its local producers.

New Colonies?

It is very difficult for today's interventionists yesterday's colonialists to resist the temptation to paternalistically impose political arrangements in the countries where they are offering "humanitarian" assistance. But in Somalia, as in the rest of the South, the military presence of white and Christian troops in the old colonial countries will not be welcomed or even tolerated for very long by a nationalist, black, Islamic and heavily armed population. In fact, the presence of foreign troops will tend to aggravate domestic conflicts.

There is the danger that a new colonial epoch is opening in the history of humanity, in which the United States with the UN seal of approval will impose the status of protectorate on nations "incapable" of governing themselves. This CIA recommendation in the case of Somalia was slightly more drastic than the UN General Secretary's own suggestion that the UN form a provisional government to organize elections in the country.

The lesson for the South is clear: any country submerged in domestic conflict independent of its justification risks re-colonization through the imposition of colonial trusteeships. These would be similar to those set up following World Wars I and II in territories judged insufficiently "mature" for independence and in need of foreign administration.

This tendency towards re-colonization, now not in the name of anti communism but of humanitarianism, deals a new blow to the rights of sovereignty and self determination of the peoples of the South. The beginning was political and on our territory: Central America's domestic conflicts led the UN to play what was essentially an interventionist role in Nicaragua and El Salvador. But, at least, it did so at the invitation of the governments themselves, even if those governments were pressured to extend the invitation.

Later, in countries like Mozambique and Angola, the presence of civilian UN forces was again agreed to, but those forces have been more than observers or mediators. They have taken on powers that historically fall exclusively to national authorities. The most extreme case has been Cambodia, where the UN Security Council took virtual political control of the country. It assumed not only the country's administration, supporting the implementation of what had been agreed to by all sides, but also the task of pushing them into further agreements, beginning with forced, non negotiable disarmament.

It is also very serious that a number of nations of the South are abandoning their defense of the principles of non intervention and self determination. As part of the global neoliberal offensive, the notion is spreading that sovereignty is a concept of the past. "The era of absolute and exclusive sovereignty has come to an end. It is in fact a theory that never existed in reality," stated the UN General Secretary in his report, Agenda for Peace.

But sovereignty, the right to self determination and human rights are not just theories; they are ideals that form part of the patrimony of international law. It is imperative to safeguard the ideal of sovereignty, as a condition for democracy itself, precisely in light of the new economic and political threats, as well as the new kinds of military threat. There are no democratic colonies.

Without doubt, humanitarian emergencies demand extraordinary responses from the international community, and especially from the opulent countries of the North. If we are all part of the same global system, it is the moral and political responsibility of the powerful to find solutions to the political and social calamities that are often the consequences of the very economic policies they dictatorially impose upon us. It is not primitive savagery or an ancestral tendency to violence that provokes ungovernability or poverty in the South. It is the North's formulas for dependent development and indebtedness. The fact that local elite governments are the North's accomplices can never justify the new "missionary" mentality of some that eliminating sovereignty and establishing protectorates by force is the alternative to declining sovereignty and the generalized crisis of poverty.

New Label, Old Wine

Interventions are nothing new in US history. What is new today is that they are receiving greater legal backing nothing less than Security Council consent under the UN banner. This reflects not a new US willingness to submit its foreign activities to the scrutiny of the international community, but an arrogant awareness that it is the only remaining superpower, with no countervailing force that dares to question the potions concocted in Washington to heal what ails the world.

It is difficult to characterize either the initial intervention or the most recent security offensives against different Somali groupings as UN operations, given that the forces are essentially US troops. In both cases, the other military forces and the UN itself are relegated to "maintaining" peace. As in the case of Bosnia or the Gulf War, the US is not willing to cede direct control via NATO of either military operations or political decisions.

This cannot simply be attributed to diabolical machinations within the Pentagon. The problem goes far deeper in this unstable world polarized by hunger and economic injustice, a world in which the UN is attempting to increase its international activity through recourse to its peacekeeping forces. A strictly moral or civilian UN presence is not enough to bring stability. Yet if a military presence is imposed, the Security Council is left with nothing more than a symbolic or juridical capacity which, in the final analysis, depends on the will of its member nations to contribute contingents and military support.

In the case of Somalia, the UN's function is articulated for the first time as going beyond defensive actions to include offensive operations against insurgent populations. It is a serious qualitative change and establishes an ominous precedent: the United Nations is assuming imperial tactics that, in this and future cases, are executed by the United States, the unexcelled interventionist power.

One New York Times columnist wondered aloud if the UN could efficiently mount peacekeeping operations that do not depend on US military power. We already know the answer: no. The United States will simply not allow interventions other than its own to take place, so the world organization continues responding disproportionately to the interests and shifts in US foreign policy. Thus, just as post election considerations led Bush to intervene in Somalia, internal factors also played a role in Clinton's decision to order the offensive there. After being criticized for weakness and ambivalence regarding the Bosnian situation and his foreign policy in general, it was "politically profitable" for Clinton to make a show of force in Somalia.

Commenting on UN actions, President Clinton insisted that offensive military actions in Somalia would strengthen the UN's credibility. From the South's perspective, the reality is quite different, since those massacred are civilians and the occupying "UN" troops are known to be under Pentagon command.

What Will the UN Become?

In this "new" world order, some nations in the South may come to perceive the UN as an instrument of colonial intervention, protected by the new neoliberal doctrines which minimize the value of sovereignty and national independence. For its own good, the UN, and particularly its Security Council, should keep a clear distance from the United States. For a small sovereign nation, seeking support from a genuinely impartial international organization will never be the same as seeking it from one that accepts unilateral impositions cloaked in multilateral clothing.

As we measure the gravity of the world's unipolarity, the UN's multilateral operations are becoming increasingly discredited. What occurred in Angola, where Savimbi's reactionary UNITA forces thumbed their noses at the electoral results and the UN military presence that had guaranteed them; what occurred in Bosnia, where the UN has been unable to halt the massacre; or in Mozambique or Cambodia, where the UN attempted to dictate internal policy all these cases have led to the loss of much of the prestige the UN gained in El Salvador and Nicaragua. By continuing to increase Pentagon and State Department influence in the Security Council and by continuing UN submission to the United States, the UN of the 1990s could well become the OAS of the 1960s. Will the entire world become the US "backyard"?

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