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Somalia -- black, white and gray mischief

IF THERE WERE an American Evelyn Waugh alive today, he could ask for no better subject matter than the recent history of Somalia. Readers of Waugh will remember “Black Mischief,” in which the Oxford-educated Emperor Seth of Azania tries and fails to reform his African realm with the assistance of the incorrigible lounge lizard, Basil Seal. Among my favorite passages is one that concerns the response in London to the news of Seth’s historic victory over a rebel army:

“Any news in the paper tonight, dear?”

“No, dear, nothing of interest.”

Though Azania was clearly modeled more closely on Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) than its neighbor to the north, I imagine similar responses to the latest news from Somalia that the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts has been ousted from power by Ethiopian forces loyal to the transitional federal government.

As with all history, the same events can be narrated in at least two mutually contradictory ways. Here, first, is Somalia’s recent history from a neoconservative perspective:

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Somalia’s troubles can be traced to its partition by the incompetent European imperial powers (especially the cheese-eating French), but the rot really set in during the late 1970s, when the detente-obsessed Carter administration failed to assist Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in his war against communist Ethiopia.

After Siad’s overthrow, the country descended into civil war. As a failed state, it became a potential base for terrorist operations. In 1993, the Clinton administration sent U.S. troops to Somalia. This was a disaster for four reasons.

First, the intervention was authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution, thus compromising American freedom of action (by giving the French a say).

Second, President Clinton reduced the size of the U.S. military presence when he should have increased it.

Third, unforeseen operational difficulties led to the loss of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and 18 U.S. military personnel, damaging American credibility in the region. (The number of Somalis killed is not known.)

Finally, instead of seeing the intervention through, Clinton cut and ran, even specifying in advance the departure date for U.S. forces.

These blunders had negative consequences for U.S. national security. Al Qaeda established a base in the south of the country. The 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were almost certainly planned there.

Last summer, a militant Islamist organization calling itself the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts seized power in Mogadishu. Similar to the Taliban in its militancy, the council imposed strict Sharia law. There were prohibitions on chewing khat, the local drug of choice, and even watching soccer games in public places. The overall head of the council was Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a suspected Al Qaeda operative. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said in December, the council leaders were “extremists to the core.”

U.S. policy has been to prevent Somalia from becoming a new front in the global war on terror, but without overt intervention, which could be politically problematic. Accordingly, the United States provided logistical naval support to the recent Ethiopian invasion and has announced an aid package of $17 million to assist the new transitional federal government of Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday: “The Somali people ... have a historic opportunity to begin to move beyond two decades of warlordism, extreme violence and humanitarian suffering.”

Now let me offer you the alternative reading of events.

Long before the arrival of European imperialism, Somalia was a country plagued by warfare. There were recurrent attempts by Ethiopia to subjugate the Somalis. There were also frequent feuds between the various Somali clans themselves, like the Hawiye clan, which has its base in Mogadishu. The new prime minister is in fact a Hawiye, but has forfeited much credibility by acting as an Ethiopian puppet. In the eyes of many Somalis, recent events are just the latest of many wars with Ethiopia. That is why the recent rout of the Islamists is unlikely to be the last act in the Somali tragedy.

The Islamists offered Somalia order; not a Western order, to be sure, but order nonetheless. Under their rule, the price of an AK-47 in the Mogadishu markets slumped to $15, a sure sign that the warlords were being forced to downsize their militias. Young men no longer roared through the streets in the Mad Max-style vehicles known locally as “technicals” -- trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns. Some were returning to school and university. Others were getting jobs with private electricity companies and airlines. Internet cafes were beginning to displace militia training camps. Kalashnikovs were being traded in for mobile phones.

Now, with the Islamists gone, the most likely scenario is a return of the warlords. Worse, the Islamists may now revert to the tactic of suicide bombing to destabilize the new government. As has happened in Afghanistan, the overthrow of an Islamist government will be followed not by a new order but by the old disorder.

As I said, it would take a satirist of Evelyn Waugh’s genius to do justice to this story -- to lay bare all the unintended consequences of yet another enforced regime change. At least in the Cold War, “our son of a bitch” -- the local anti-communist strongman -- could be counted on to impose a brutal kind of order. Now, in the war on terror, the United States would rather see a country torn apart by multiple sons-of-bitches than ruled under Sharia law.

But the more U.S. foreign policy promotes anarchy instead of order, the stronger the Islamists’ appeal will be. And the darker the shade of mischief that will ensue.

nferguson@latimescolumnists.com


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