Somalia: White House 'steamrollered' into intervention

THE BUSH administration exaggerated the magnitude of the problems in Somalia as it scrambled under pressure from the press and television images to throw together an intervention plan, according to relief experts and analysts consulted by Washington.

Even US officials in Africa, including the US ambassador to Kenya, expressed alarm at the haste to send 28,000 US troops to the Horn of Africa to stop armed gunmen from 'sabotaging' international relief agencies' efforts to feed starving Somalis.

According to one well-placed British relief official in Washington during the decision-making, the White House was 'steamrollered' into putting together a US intervention force following press leaks from an administration meeting in late November where the idea was first mooted. 'Once the leaks started the administration felt it had to live up to the expectations and could not roll back,' the official said.

Television images of starving Somali children led to growing public concern over the situation in Somalia and had an impact on the White House as well. One Pentagon offical was quoted as saying that President George Bush felt he had to do something and 'would not leave office with 50,000 people starving that he could have saved'.

Plans were then put together at high speed by the Pentagon. 'They were put together with very little knowledge and with very little analysis of what the local impact would be,' the official said.

Soon after Lawrence Eagleburger, the Secretary of State, was referring to the situation in Somalia as 'a tragedy of massive proportions' where armed bandits and random violence were 'sabotaging' efforts to feed starving people. The State Department said 80 per cent of all relief aid sent to the country was being 'extorted' by 'armed thugs'.

However, according to relief officials and Africa analysts, this is a huge oversimplification of what was happening in Somalia. Geoff Loane, the co-ordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is the largest distributor of relief food in Somalia, says a maximum of 20 to 30 per cent of relief has been lost to looting. Justin Forsythe of Oxfam said: 'Certainly some has been looted but some has gotten through. I don't know where the 80 per cent figure came from.'

One official from Save the Children Fund said: 'To only be losing a fifth of your aid in a country where the central interest is food - and you are losing that food in the direction of the market - you are doing pretty good.'

According to Rakiya Omaar, who was dismissed from the human rights group Africa Watch for opposing the intervention, and Alex De Waal, who resigned afterwards, the pictures of the starving children that helped trigger the intervention were 'disaster pornography'. 'The reality of famine is both more complex and much less extreme than is ever conveyed in a picture story,' they wrote in a joint article. 'The truth is that, even in the areas of the country stricken by famine, outright starvation is the exception.'

At a meeting last week with Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, relief officals said they favoured military intervention to help get aid to starving Somalis but only as long as it was accompanied by longer- term efforts for reconciliation and reconstruction and as long it was 'positive' for Somalis.

Now that the marines have landed some officials said they were more sceptical. 'Certainly the behaviour of the marines who were shown on television standing over unarmed Somalis was not a good start,' said one relief official who asked not to be identified.