Today's reluctant imperialists: US intervention in Somalia is the test that will determine how the West responds to other countries in chaos, says Richard Dowden

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The Independent Online
It is only three years since the last black African colony became independent but African nostalgia for colonial times, once unthinkable, is heard more and more frequently. Most Somalis welcomed the Americans on the streets of Mogadishu on 9 December. It may have been a welcome born of despair but elsewhere, mainly in rural areas, farmers say quite unselfconsciously: 'Why don't the British (or the French or Portuguese) come back? Life was better in those days.'

Will their dreams come true? Will the collapse of Africa and the creeping Western control of Africa's economies and, increasingly, its politics, usher in an age of neo- imperialism? The original takeover of Africa owed something to the plea for humanitarian intervention. More than 100 years ago David Livingstone called on the world to save Africa from slavery and poverty and to 'heal this open sore of the world'. His plea encouraged the European powers to step in. Instead of setting Africa free, however, they took it over for their own commercial and strategic interests.

The modern-day Livingstones, the aid agencies, are calling for help just as he did. Most would be horrified at the suggestion that they are contributing to a new takeover but the reality is that in the weakest countries they are already playing an imperial role. Their financial resources and access to the world media give them immense power. As in Livingstone's time, their pleas could end with Western powers stepping in, especially if African voices are added to theirs. As wars and famines increase, aid agencies become less and less able to cope and only governments with guns and aircraft can intervene effectively. That intervention creates dependency and a form of imperialism.

No one wants to colonise Africa these days. No one wants territory for settlement or self-aggrandisement. No one wants to take on responsibility for Africa's horrendous problems. But television pictures of starvation, especially man-made starvation, cry out for intervention.

After Kuwait, Kurdistan and Somalia it is clear that the best formula for intervening in situations which require quick and effective military action is an American-led force backed by a UN mandate. But the lesson America is learning in Somalia is that intervention, for whatever motive, is intervention. Whatever carefully laid plans and timetables you go in with, once you are in it is difficult to get out again.

The United States is ambivalent about intervention. Americans react to television pictures of hunger and gunmen by pushing to get in there and solve the problem. At the same time, their instinct is isolationist. They don't want to get involved. American troops left Vietnam 20 years ago but their one-time involvement still dictates present attitudes. The commanders now in Somalia all served their apprenticeship in Saigon and it forged their attitude to intervention. General Robert Johnston served in Vietnam as a young marine, and Robert Oakley, the US Special Envoy, was a young diplomat there in the Sixties. Vietnam crops up in their conversation continually. In many Americans Vietnam created a gut desire for revenge, a need to prove something, but Mr Oakley learnt painful lessons.

'We went in there and did all sorts of wonderful things American-style without really understanding that we were playing a neo-imperial role . . . But one day we left and all those things we had created collapsed because they were built by us, not by them. So, painful as it is, you've got to let them work it out.'

But Washington hasn't given Mr Oakley the time to let Somalis work it out. Terrified of being sucked into an imperial role, the Americans are trying to withdraw as soon as possible. The mandate they gave themselves was to go into a limited area for a limited period and establish security for food distribution. But they are learning that the problem with Somalia was, and is, that the state, the last vestige of authority and structure, has been destroyed. The daily meeting in Mogadishu of the UN organisations and the aid agencies, chaired by the marines, is the nearest thing to a government that Somalia has.

Despite the breathing space the Americans have created there is no new Somali political culture emerging. The killers are just taking a rest between bouts and the elders, intellectuals and others who might be able to restore sanity to Somalia have no mechanism for gathering popular support or creating even local government.

The marines have administered an anaesthetic to Somalia, but there is no evidence that the disease which brought them in has been cured. If they leave, the devils will return, tenfold.

The United Nations is supposed to take over from the marines - Boutros Boutros-Ghali has suggested 1 May as a handover date - but the UN operations have been a disaster in Somalia and it looks in no shape to run a country.

The best hope for Somalia is that the Americans will stay on by stealth, seconding senior officers to command and control the UN operation, providing logistical back- up and keeping a strike force off the coast ready to step back in again if necessary. They must also move faster to disarm and marginalise the warlords and create a new forum for Somali political representation. In the meantime, though, some Somalis may begin to blame their troubles on the foreign presence instead of the reason which brought it there. When that happens, will the Americans have the stomach to stay?

But it is not just the future of Somalia at stake. Somalia is the test. If it works, there will be other candidates for intervention: Bosnia, Sudan, Angola and - looking ahead - Tajikistan. Just wait for the television pictures, the huge dull eyes and wasted bodies, the enraging arrogance of the guns that stop the food aid. Again the cry will go up for intervention. If Somalia is a success that outcry will be effective. If Somalia slips back into disaster, the cry will be 'Remember Mogadishu'.

Richard Dowden reports on humanitarian intervention in 'Assignment' on BBC 2 tonight at 7.45pm.

(Photograph omitted)