"Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat." -Jean-Paul Sartre
The preamble to the United Nations Charter begins, "We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…."
Such idiom becomes useful when the United States intervenes under the auspices of UN humanitarianism. As the endgame in Iraq grows progressively more muddled and calls for UN involvement increase, it's interesting to note that March 25, 2004 marks 10 years since the last U.S. troops left Somalia.
In 1992-93, Somalia experienced U.S./UN munificence firsthand. Operation Restore Hope (sic) was sold to the public as an act of U.S. philanthropy with images of malnourished African children and stories of evil Somali warlords…but little of the nation's history was allowed to get in the way.
"During the early 1970s," explains Stephen Zunes, "Somalia was a client of the Soviet Union, even allowing the Soviets to establish a naval base at Berbera on the strategic north coast near the entrance to the Red Sea."
Siad Barre, Somalia's dictator, cultivated a relationship with the USSR due to U.S. support of Ethiopia Under the rule of the feudal emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia was a bitter rival of Somalia. The U.S. supported Selassie's monarchy until he was toppled in 1974.
Within three years, the Ethiopian military turned towards Moscow while President Carter eyed Somalia, telling his advisers that he wanted them 'to move in every possible way to get Somalia to be our friend." The U.S. succeeded in luring Siad Barre away from the Soviet sphere of influence and he remained an ally until his ouster in 1991, an ouster not opposed by Barre's benefactors.
"For its part, Washington couldn't be bothered by what was going on," says historian Stephen R. Shalom. "Barre was a U.S. ally, but so too were the various guerrilla leaders who were fighting against him."
"From the late 1970s until just before Siad Barre's overthrow in early 1991, the U.S. sent hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to Somalia in return for the use of military facilities which had been originally constructed for the Soviets," Zunes declares. With valuable military bases located in Somalia to support U.S. intervention in the Middle East, warnings that U.S. support for Barre's dictatorship could eventually lead to chaos and famine went unheeded.
Of course, chaos and famine ensued…creating ideal conditions for U.S. exploitation and whitewashing. Scholar and activist Eqbal Ahmad called Somalia "a perfect example" of a nation discarded by the U.S. in the post-Cold War world:
"Siad Barre…was first allied to the Soviet Union. The Soviets put in artificial military and economic muscle into that state. The aid started to decline with the economic crisis in the Soviet Union. Siad Barre shifted to the United States, which was at the time looking for strategic insertions in the Persian Gulf area. So they took on Siad Barre. More aid flowed in. He stayed on. When the Cold War ended, he was abandoned. The crisis of the state began. It fell apart. The glue was removed."
"The U.S. responsibility for supporting and arming Siad Barre is seldom acknowledged by U.S. mass media," says journalist Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "One of the noteworthy exceptions was by ABC's Peter Jennings, who reported that Siad Barre had received 'almost $200 million in military aid and almost half a billion in economic aid.' Jennings explained why the U.S. ignored Siad Barre's corruption and human rights abuses: 'To Washington's satisfaction, he was more than willing to keep [Soviet-allied] Ethiopia tied down in a debilitating war…. Millions of innocent civilians paid the price.'"
Into the vacuum left by the eventual overthrow of Barre, the U.S. pushed an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment program on a nation besieged with drought conditions. This was a recipe for disaster and the resulting famine killed an estimated 300,000 people, mostly children.
Thanks to media spin, this crisis was misrepresented.
"In January 1991, six leading relief agencies warned that 20 million people in Africa faced starvation unless food aid was forthcoming," reports Naureckas. "In the fall of 1991, U.N. officials estimated that 4.5 million Somalis faced grave food shortages. In all of 1991, Somalia got three minutes of attention on the three evening network news shows. From January to June 1992, Somalia got 11 minutes."
Thanks to media spin, this crisis was exploited.
In November 1993, after the worst of the famine had already passed, the U.S. sent 30,000 troops, primarily Marines and Army Rangers, to Somalia on a "humanitarian mission." One month later, the UN Security Council endorsed the move thus providing Washington with the smokescreen of charity.
Somalia was not fooled.
"Large numbers of Somalis saw the American forces as representatives of the government which served as the major Western supporter of the hated former dictatorship," says Zunes. "It wasn't long before the slogan of American forces was 'The only good Somali is a dead Somali.' It had become apparent that the U.S. had badly underestimated the resistance."
As U.S. casualties mounted, more and more Somalis found themselves under attack. Marine Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinn commanded the operation. "I'm not counting bodies," he said. "I'm not interested." President Clinton, who inherited Operation Restore Hope (sic) from his predecessor, ordered the bombing of civilian targets. George Stephanopoulos later recalled Clinton's words in his book, All Too Human:
"We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers," Clinton said, softly at first. "When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers." Then, with his face reddening, his voice rising, and his fist pounding his thigh, he leaned into Tony [Lake, then his national security adviser], as if it was his fault. "I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can't believe we're being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."
If it wasn't a humanitarian motive, why did the U.S. risk military embarrassment to intervene in Somalia, killing an estimated 7000 to 10,000 Somalis?
As the song goes, "Gold is the reason for the wars we wage."
"Considered geologically analogous to oil-rich Yemen across the Red Sea, it has been the site of oil exploration by such companies as Amoco, Chevron and Conoco," says Naureckas. "Not until six weeks into the operation did a journalist for a major media outlet…report on the 'close relationship between Conoco and the U.S. intervention force,' which used Conoco's Mogadishu headquarters as a 'de facto U.S. embassy.'"
Distinguishing victory from defeat is not always as easy task. We are continually taught to view Vietnam as the war America lost. But which America lost? Which Americans? Somalia is often portrayed as an embarrassment…but for whom? Outside of corporate media pundits and those who trust in them, who is upset with the outcome? What about the quagmire in Iraq? Well, that one is supposed to play out similarly in the image of chaos and mismanagement. However, like Vietnam and Somalia, Iraq may still play out as yet another foreign policy nightmare that enriched the coffers of Corporate America.
Sooner or later, this gambling strategy will backfire and the losers will number more than dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror.
(This article is adapted from Mickey Z.'s book, "The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda," to be published in May 2004 by Common Courage Press.)
Mickey Z. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.