Washington at sea over intervention: American errors in Somalia were largely a repeat of their experiences in Lebanon 10 years ago, writes Patrick Cockburn

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The Independent Online
FUTURE American co-operation with the United Nations in peace-keeping operations is being jeopardised by the shipwreck of US policy in Somalia. Other likely casualties include the effort by the US and the UN to restore civilian rule in Haiti and the US promise to provide 25,000 troops to a UN force policing a peace settlement in Bosnia.

Disillusionment with the UN is unlikely to be reversed even though the US was always in operational control in Somalia. President Bill Clinton and Congress are at one in blaming the UN Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, for the obsessive pursuit of General Mohamed Farah Aideed, but the US Rangers who did the pursuing took orders from US Central Command headquarters in Florida and not the UN.

Not surprisingly, President Clinton and the administration are busily removing their fingerprints from anything to do with the Somalia operation. This is inevitable, but rewriting history obscures the real lessons of the debacle. The most important of these is that nothing very new has happened. American errors in Somalia in 1993 were largely a repeat of what happened during the US intervention in Lebanon in 1983.

In both countries the US - in each case leading a coalition of allies - arrived to oversee and build on a ceasefire and then took sides in a civil war. In Somalia, as in Lebanon, the US commanders underestimated both the fighting strength and political support of the other side and the rage their excessive use of firepower to minimise their own casualties would cause among the civilian population.

The intervention in Lebanon was effectively ended by the truck bomb which killed 241 US marines and defeat in Somalia was marked 10 years later almost to the day by the killing of 17 US Rangers by Somali militiamen. President Reagan withdrew his forces immediately, while President Clinton will take six months.

The analogy, Somalia today and Lebanon a decade ago, is important because it shows that what went wrong in Mogadishu has little to do with a new post-Cold War relationship between the US and the UN and a lot to do with how the US formulates and carries out foreign policy.

In each case the men in charge were military-political bureaucrats and had similar blind spots. In Somalia it was the retired US admiral, Jonathan Howe, for 23 years in and out of administration in Washington. In Lebanon, it was Colonel Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's special envoy, who ordered the guns of the US marines and Navy ships to open fire in defence of US allies. Admiral Howe always acted with the knowledge - and largely at the behest - of Washington. When he visited the capital last month the UN official with him was not allowed to attend his meetings at the Pentagon and National Security Council. Even US officials sympathetic to the admiral now admit that he was a poor choice to put in charge of a delicate balancing act by the UN in Somalia where it had neither the mandate nor the strength to behave like an imperial power.

It is unfair to put all the blame on Admiral Howe, now firmly marginalised by the arrival of an official US special envoy in the shape of Robert Oakley. But he has proved lethally ill-equipped for dealing with the world outside the political elite.

A sign that mistakes made by Admiral Howe in Moga dishu are part of a more general problem is that they have many parallels with errors, admitted in two recent official reports, made by senior officials in dealing with the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, earlier this year. In both cases demonisation of David Koresh and General Aideed led to an excessive use of force by the government.

President Clinton says that the US troops were simply following the orders of the UN Security Council in trying to arrest General Aideed for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on 5 June. But the UN inquiry itself showed that General Aideed was acting under some provocation from Admiral Howe. The decision to use assault troops and helicopter gunships, both inevitably leading to high civilian casualties, was apparently taken by Admiral Howe alone.

An ironic result of disaster in Somalia is that it has helped discredit - and certainly robbed of political support - the attempt by the US and the UN to ease the Haitian military out of power.

But it was the knowledge that Somalia had robbed the US of any further appetite for peace-keeping ventures that nerved them this week first

to turn back the US troop ship and then to allow the as sassination of the civilian Justice Minister Guy Malary.

(Photograph omitted)