The Lessons of Somalia: Not Everything Went Wrong

Chester A Crocker. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 3. May 1995.

Under the protection of a U.S. military umbrella, the United Nations extricated itself from Somalia in early March 1995. The exit went well and may serve as a model for pulling U.N. peacekeepers out of the former Yugoslavia and other places where they run into trouble. But what lessons is the United States drawing from the “failed” Somalia enterprise? Is “failure” the right term to describe the U.S. and U.N. military intervention? If so, what is it that failed?

Appraisals of the Somalia operation vary widely. Some disparage it as a media-driven spectacle of misguided internationalism that ignored the pitfalls of intervention in alien places lacking civil order and legitimate political institutions. Some see Somalia as an almost welcome inoculation against the temptation to intervene in places such as Rwanda, while others blame the Somalia operation for sapping U.S. political will and global standing and for inhibiting Americans from doing the right thing in “more important” places like Bosnia. The lesson, in this view, is to refrain from applying global standards and to disengage from the world’s strategic slums. Another school views Somalia as an epitaph for multilateralism and an object lesson on the United Nations’ inadequacies and the need to limit the U.S. role in U.N. peace-keeping. Still others view Somalia as a laudable step toward a new era in American exceptionalism and humanitarian leadership, which turned sour because the United States became entangled in local politics. The actual lessons, however, are more subtle and more interesting than these one-liners suggest.

The Standard of Success

The intervention in Somalia was not a failure as measured by the standards first set by President Bush. Much has been accomplished in humanitarian terms, and a larger tragedy has been averted. How large a tragedy it is impossible to know, but, judging by the Somali death toll of 1992, One could reasonably estimate that upwards of a quarter of a million Somali lives were saved. Some failure.

The Somali political landscape, moreover, has been changed forever. The apparent rejection of outside political initiatives by local parties should not obscure the fact that foreign intervention knocked a hideously costly, stalemated clan war off dead center and opened the field for local initiatives. This is a classic, if sometimes perverse, function of foreign intervention. Today large parts of the country are free of conflict and widespread human suffering. This is not to say that Somalia is a peaceful or hopeful place, but we left it better off than we found it.

Somalia had the ill fortune to experience firsthand the full effects of a U.S. political transition: the steep learning curve of an inexperienced administration in Washington, an idiosyncratic U.N. leadership bent on using leverage borrowed from member states to fir Somalia, and a prolonged, unresolved debate between New York and Washington over basic purposes in the field.

These tensions and disruptions were manifest in the various phases of the Somalia enterprise:

  • U.N. Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I), April-December 1992, which tried to reconcile warring Somali factions but collapsed from bureaucratic infighting and an inability to provide safety for relief operations;
  • United Task Force (UNITAF), December 1992-April 1993, a multinational force led by the United States and approved by the United Nations, which quickly provided that safety, started a low-key political process, and maintained working relationships with all Somali factions and groups;
  • U.N. Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II), May 1993-March 1995, the U.N.-led operation that comprised an overreaching, “nation-building” phase (May-October 1993) and a scaled-back, accommodative phase (November 1993-March 1995) triggered by the October 3, 1993, firefight in Mogadishu.

As the initial intervention unfolded, Somalia was transformed from a famine-stricken backwater where heartless warlords and hopped-up teenage gangs reigned over helpless innocents into a laboratory for new theories of U.N. peacekeeping. Perhaps, ironically, the impressive leadership, coherence, and dramatic success of the U.S.-led UNITAF phase made it look too easy, facilitating the “mission creep” that produced UNOSOM II vast nation-building mandate. The sheer ease of intervention, combined with the mastery with which it was initially conducted in Washington and in the field, helped produce the slide toward a modern version of trusteeship over an ex-colonial territory, triggering a violent backlash mounted by a powerful Somali faction.

Bad Breaks

Look more closely at what happened. The UNITAF mission was successful during its too-brief deployment through April 1993. Establishing safety for relief workers while keeping the warlords somewhat placated and off balance; maintaining and demonstrating military primacy without making a permanent adversary or national hero of any local actor; pushing the military factions ld toward a locally led political process while opening up that process to civilian elites and eschewing precise formulas; removing heavy weapons from areas of conflict while fostering the restoration of police and government functions—these were undertakings of the highest order of delicacy in a militarized and fragmented society like Somalia’s. UNITAF’s accomplishments far exceeded the simple, publicly discussed goal of creating a “secure environment for humanitarian relief.” They required strong leadership and a well-oiled, quick-response military-civilian bureaucracy.

But the coordinated and politically astute operating strategy of U.S. Ambassador Robert B. Oakley and U.S. Marine General Robert Johnston (who both had outstanding access to Washington) would be interrupted, first by the U.S. presidential transition, and again during the handoff from UNITAF to UNOSOM II, the entire field leadership of the U.S.-led intervention was replaced by a less united and coherent operation reporting to U.N. headquarters. Another discontinuity was the quick departure—before the new UNOSOM II management was even in place in Mogadishu—of not only the previous UNITAF management but many vital U.S. combat units.

Is it any wonder that things turned sour? Why expect a seamless transition to U.N.-led peacekeeping to flow from a rancorous argument between Washington and U.N. headquarters about whether the transfer should even take place and whether the United States had completed its initial task? Such changes of leadership, tradition, doctrine, personal chemistry, operating procedures, policy instincts, and bureaucratic systems were bound to disrupt the effectiveness and credibility of the military presence.

Another major discontinuity was, of course, the adoption of a sweepingly ambitious new “nation-building” resolution by the Security Council (Resolution 814), which authorized UNOSOM II at the very moment existing management, reporting channels, and capabilities were being transformed. The nation-building resolution aimed explicitly at reestablishing Somalia’s political institutions and rehabilitating its economy as well as assuring security throughout the country, not merely in the famine-afflicted south and central zones. The changes raised Somali doubts about the operation’s objectives while creating opportunities to test its will. Between May 1993, when the United Nations took over, and the October 3, 1993, debacle when U.S. forces, under U.S. command, suffered 18 dead in a Mogadishu firefight, many of UNITAF’s accomplishments were lost. Also lost was the shallow and fragile U.S. consensus on U.N. peace operations.

What Somalia Proved

Somalia, having experienced several types of intervention and peacekeeping, is hardly an ideal test case for judging U.N. peace operations. Like a barometer, it has both shaped and reflected shifting U.S. and international opinion about them.

Arguably, Somalia does not offer an ideal test of either the Bush concept of limited humanitarian intervention or the evolving concepts of expanded peacekeeping and peace enforcement based on the use-of-force authority provided in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. The Somalia “failure” was less a failure of either humanitarian intervention or muscular peacekeeping than a failure to apply them steadily and wisely. The failure was of another order: strategic confusion followed by a collapse of political will when the confusion led to combat casualties.

In Cambodia, Central America, Namibia, and now Mozambique, U.N. operations have unquestionably given war-torn lands a chance to get on their feet. These were complex operations conducted successfully under wide-ranging mandates. But the United Nations’ attempt at a militarily challenging “peace enforcement” operation shows that it cannot manage complex political-military operations when its own structure is an undisciplined and often chaotic set of rival fiefdoms that resist unified command and control in the field at both the civilian and military levels. Basic change is needed on the issues of delegation to the field, unity of command in the field, and professional military backstopping and oversight from U.N. headquarters. We already knew these things about U.N. reform. After Somalia, we know them even better.

Equally important, Somalia underscores the need for improvement in the way the United States—the United Nations’ leading member—defines missions, reviews and approves peacekeeping mandates, and approves U.N. force levels and budgets. The United States and the United Nations overreached in Somalia when they expanded the initial mandate without providing the means to carry it out. They failed to resolve a raging debate over whether and how to disarm the Somali factions. In the end, of course, the United States refused to take on that task before handing it off to the U.N. command. UNITAF probably could have done much more to demilitarize and disarm Somalia if the United States had been prepared to make the necessary forces available for a longer period and had maintained effective working relationships with the Somalis.

But realizing the more open-ended time frame, the additional resources required to disarm the Somali factions, and the possible negative fallout on the home front, both U.S. administrations strongly opposed it. The ball was simply dropped by Washington, the U.N. secretary general, and the Security Council in New York. As a result, the United Nations received a bolder mandate than the one Bush had given UNITAF (and which Oakley and Johnston later expanded on the ground) but was given woefully inadequate means for carrying it out. These things should never have been permitted to happen. Either the nation-building mandate should have been drastically scaled down or the means to implement it should have been mobilized.

The Lessons

The Somalia episode suggests several lessons. It is obvious that the United States and other leading nations (within or outside the United Nations) should act through diplomacy (whether preventive, coercive, or mediatory) before states fail and societies implode. Once men with guns seize the initiative, it becomes more complex to accommodate the interests of their peculiar hierarchies in addition to those of the broader society and political system, and it becomes more costly for external peacemakers to apply their will.

Somalia reinforces the point that the linkage between U.N. peacekeeping mandates and the resources made available by member states must be better understood by Security Council members so that they do not approve missions that will expose U.N. peacekeepers to severe risk and the United Nations itself to ridicule. At the same time, there is no excuse for underfunding and undermanning missions that warrant U.S. support. We must remember that the Security Council is a mirror of the actions, inactions, fudges, and fantasies of its leading members, who can veto anything they do not like.

The clear shortcomings in the United Nations’ capacity to manage peacekeeping and especially peace enforcement argue strongly for several approaches: U.N. institutional reform to end bureaucratic fiefdoms in the field, create genuine unity of command, and beef up U.N. headquarters’ ability to manage and control military operations; restraint and selectivity in undertaking missions that cross the line between traditional, consensual peacekeeping and enforcement; and creativity in supporting their management. Historically, U.N. operations have prospered when they enjoyed the dedicated, attentive backing of one or more major powers. This was the case with the far-reaching but successful Congo operation of the 1960s and the intricate, multipurpose U.N. operations in Namibia, Cambodia, and Mozambique more recently. By contrast, UNOSOM II demonstrates how a U.N. operation can fail if it is orphaned by leading members.

Responsibility for making these operations succeed must be given to the most experienced and imaginative people available. It is equally imperative to conduct basic reviews if operations turn sour. Peacekeeping initiatives should not be launched without some assurances of stability of leadership in the field, some hope for continuity of backstopping in key capitals and New York, and a clear hierarchy of accountability for the whole business. Changes in either resources made available, including key combat components, or leadership relationships and reporting channels between the field and key capitals must be minimized.

In the National Interest

At the strategic level, the Somalia case raises the question of limits to and criteria for U.S. and U.N. involvement in humanitarian operations, political transitions from protracted civil conflicts, and efforts to restore failed states. Can and should the United States insist on a carefully worded “national interest” standard for support of and participation in such operations? Can humanitarian action be sealed off from the politics of peacemaking and the military implications of peace enforcement? Somalia cannot answer these questions, but it highlights the need for debate.

By overreaching as dramatically as it did, the Security Council’s March 1993 nation-building resolution caused a backlash at two levels. The sweep of the mandate and the way it was implemented changed the Somali political posture from humiliated acceptance of a helping hand to polarization and nationalist martyrdom. In the United States, support for an initially popular undertaking collapsed amid confusion about American purposes. Was this a humanitarian mission, a manhunt for a wily warlord, or a nation-building program? After Somalia, it is getting harder for Western leaders to rally their constituents to go to war for a new world order.

That said, President Bush was right—politically, strategically, and ethically—to launch Operation Restore Hope, and President Clinton was right to support his decision. The judgment that U.S. forces could and should stop humanitarian disaster in Somalia was a proper assertion of global leadership, as evidenced by the long list of nations who pressed to join during the initial phase of UNITAF. As the end of the century nears, it is surely wise that we and others broaden our understanding of national interest to include consideration of interests related to global order (sanctity of borders, extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) and global standards (avoiding genocide, mass humanitarian catastrophe).

Operation Restore Hope was an act of human solidarity without regard to race, religion, or region. That is why the Congress and the American people supported it—just as they supported the 1991 effort to protect Iraqi Kurds. And that is why no one is especially proud of the U.S. role in inhibiting U.N. action in Rwanda, the first victim of the post-Somalia backlash. Just as it cannot be U.S. policy to protect oil supplies but ignore genocide, it cannot be U.S. policy to protect Kurds but ignore Tutsis.

The Test for Intervention

If the criteria for initiating U.N. peace operations and humanitarian intervention are not primarily geographic, then what are they? Some say that the United States should not have intervened (or encouraged the United Nations to do so) in Somalia unless it was also prepared to do so in Sudan, Tibet, and Tajikistan. But we cannot view all disorders as equally threatening to our global interests. The quest for consistency leads to a false choice between doing nothing and indiscriminate interventionism.

No one realistically expects or wants the United States to act in every scenario where action is possible. Americans are relative newcomers to U.N. peace operations; many other nations play responsible, leading roles in them and will continue to provide the bulk of the financing and manpower that make them possible. Somalia was an exception both in the prominence of the roles the United States played and in its dramatic impact on events. The question is whether Americans will learn from Somalia or recoil from the experience—and from peace operations generally.

The basic criterion that the United States should apply in essentially humanitarian cases is not obscure: Is a proposed operation likely to be effective at an acceptable cost to those who will bear the burden of intervention? Clearly, a wide range of factors must be examined: logistics, terrain, the likelihood and nature of armed opposition to the intervention, the role of humanitarian aid organizations, and the impact of intervention on their operations.

The final lesson of Somalia may be the most humbling. Just as humanitarian relief may disrupt a local economy, changing the stakes of conflict and even, perversely, fueling it, military intervention may alter the local balance of power. Operation Restore Hope was no exception. It temporarily strengthened Somalia’s vestigial civil society and challenged the warlords’ political monopoly. By freezing in place the factional strife, it also checked the stronger factions and protected the weaker ones. But what is there to replace this new status quo so that the old one does not return?

Somalia, in other words, suggests that there is no such thing as a purely humanitarian operation. It calls attention to the question of how intervention can translate into peacemaking so that something emerges to replace the temporary status quo created by intervention. The Bush and Clinton administrations insisted on a quick handoff to the United Nations, effectively begging the question. (For a brief period, the UNITAF leaders improvised a political settlement strategy that appeared promising, but it collapsed when UNOSOM II soured.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that an appeal for outside force must be accompanied by a political strategy for leashing the dogs—while healing the wounds—of war.