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

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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor