Mohamed Beshir Hamid

Lecture: U.S. Intervention in Somalia

The U.S. Intervention in Somalia:

Revisiting the ‘White Man’s Burden’?



Public Lecture given to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars in March 1993


The U.S. military intervention in Somalia was unique in many as aspects. It was an action invoked and justified as a moral imperative. According to Newsweek, President Bush told the American troops departing for Somalia they were doing “God’s work”. An article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Bring Back Lord Kitchener?” commented that “what Desert storm did for America’s military credibility, Somalia may do for America’s moral credibility”. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor equates the national interest of the United States with the moral imperative to move “the international community towards a policy of responding to humanitarian and human-rights crises before they breed larger conflicts.” An essay in Time magazine entitled “sometimes Right Makes Might” observes that “what makes America’s intervention into Somalia seem so inspiring and also so dangerously slippery is that this might be the first time since the Crusades that an invasion has been launched for a purely moral rationale”.


These and other similar sentiment reflect perhaps the American tendency—some will say obsession—to ascribe morality to American actions, a morality that is always “self-defined” and often “self-righteous”. There is obviously nothing new in this. The best examples go back not exactly to the Crusades, but to the Wilsonian idealistic notion of “making the world safe for democracy”. The Cold War was always described by the United States in moral terms from Kennedy’s call to “pay any price and bear any burden” to Reagan’s uncharitable reference to the “Evil Empire”. But the real motivation was not morality but self-interest.

Within this context it is ironic that the American tradition of blurring the line between interest and ideals has served to inject elements of suspicion and concern over the American action in Somalia, an action which in the absence of vital and pressing American interests in Somalia seemed to lean on the side of idealism. It has raised questions as to just how humanitarian is the humanitarian intervention in Somalia? How valid are the moral and humanitarian terms in which it has been characterized? Certain factors surrounding the decision to send American troops have tended to underline the concerns over, and to feed suspicions, about the American action.


I wish to begin by talking about three factors. The first is the timing of the decision itself. It has been described as an impulsive plan. It was of course unexpected and unusual. It was unexpected because it reversed American policy at the time when the Bush administration was under no extraordinary pressure to do so. After all it was not as if the dimensions of the Somalia tragedy had not gripped the headlines and television screens for a considerable period of time. It was unusual because it was not usual for a lame-duck president to make a major foreign policy decision involving military commitment abroad in the dying days of his administration.


Why then, the unexpected and unusual decision? Who pushed Bush? These questions were raised in the media and various interpretations were given to them. One version was that of a humiliated president anxious to go out on a high note, with a bang and not a whimper, to insure his place in history. A variation of this version is that Bush was handicapped from taking the decision earlier because during the election campaign it would have appeared as a political gimmick. If it is not easy, even now, to piece together how and why the Bush administration arrived at this decision, it is not surprising that in the eyes of some in the Third World, the timing of the decision was held suspect. One Egyptian political analyst writing in the Al-Ahram Weekly gave the Bush administration an ingeniously—perhaps almost too ingenious—indigenous flavor. He suggests that the decision was designed to embarrass Bush’s successor by entangling the Clinton administration in a long-term commitment when Clinton had promised during the campaign to focus on domestic concerns. In other words, the dirty tricks strategists of the Republican party were up to no good again. Conversely, there is the inevitable collusion theory: the Clinton team must have been in on a decision of this magnitude which is seen as being above partisan concern because it fits into the grand design of American strategy for international and regional dominance. One writer argues that the “sudden American enthusiasm about Somalia” and the rush to send troops there arouses suspicions and fears about American intentions: “There is no denying that Somalia is in urgent need of help, and that the civil war going on there has created an unprecedented famine; yet what we are dead scared of is the possibility of America exploiting this situation, and seizing the opportunity to rearrange the conditions of the region, the same way it is rearranging and, indeed, dividing Iraq at the moment.”


The second factor concerns what may be called the selective approach or the double standard. Why Somalia? Why Somalia and not other crisis areas like Bosnia, Sudan, Liberia, Cambodia, etc? All of these are situations where the human tragedy is no less and in some cases is even worse than in Somalia. This is a question which has been and still is consistently raised not only among foreign skeptics of American motives, but in the American media and within the American administration itself.


From an American perspective, however, the answer may not seem lacking in logical and plausible rationalization. Somalia was selected because it fits the guidelines of armed intervention. These guidelines are as follows:

1. The crisis must be militarily manageable. In the words of former Defense Secretary Cheney, it must be ‘militarily doable’.
2. The military mission has to be clearly defined and the military objective clearly stated.
3. Intervention should be a last and not a first resort.
4. Intervention must reduce the death toll and not increase it. That is, it should be in a situation where no heavy resistance is expected.
5. There must be a consensus of the international community. Translation: use the United Nations cover and make sure that there are no trouble makers, for example, the Russians, who are going to rock the boat.


From an African perspective, the arguments are perhaps different, but are no less plausible. First there is the belief that Somalia was selected not because of the humanitarian factor, but because it would divert the attention for the short term from the humanitarian imperative to intervene in the more costlier and less manageable areas. The other side of this argument is that Somalia is a testing ground for United States global strategy. If this operation was successful it would carry this intervention elsewhere, and thus shore up the process of the still ill-defined new world order. In other words, the new world order is being shaped by a process of trial and error. The cause of humanitarian intervention thus improves if the disaster area involves weak countries and the risks of interventions are reduced. This raises a question in the African mind. If humanitarian is to be calculated in terms of what it costs, then it is being measured in terms of self-interest, whether national or international and not necessarily in moral and humanitarian terms.


There is also concern that the selective approach might in itself incite crises, such as civil and regional wars and illegitimate interventions, with the aim of changing regimes and conditions in the absence of a coherent world order. Linked with this is suspicion that the United States is assuming the role of being the policeman of the world and may not resist the temptation of seizing this opportunity to rearrange national, regional, and international conditions as it sees fit.


The third factor is the unilateral approach. Intervention in Somalia was an American decision. The United Nations Security Council resolution sanctioning military intervention was the legal cover for the United States intervention in Somalia. The resolution can be seen as standing on very shaky legal grounds, going against the established principle enshrined in United Nations charter itself of the inadmissibility of intervention in internal affairs of any state without the permission or invitation of the host government. Before Somalia, such an act would have been denounced as a violation of state sovereignty or even as an act of aggression.


Now the aspects of this objection are simple enough. In the case of Somalia, the state has disintegrated and the government has degenerated into armed starving and killing their own people. There is no state and no government. But this answer immediately resurrects the selectivity argument. What about Bosnia whose government has practically on its knees pleaded with the outside world to intervene in its internal affairs? What about the Sudan where the government itself is the agent of killing and starvation?


The unilateral approach raises delicate questions: by what scale does one calculate how much suffering is enough to justify humanitarian intervention? And the related question, the most important question: who decides when intervention becomes justifiable? Is it the world community (the United Nations) or the one dominant power (the United States)? The United States is admittedly the only country with the global reach to cope with crisis and disaster situations and to make the kind of operation carried out in Somalia possible. The Gulf experience has shown that even when other countries participate, their participation is mostly symbolic. It is useful to the extent that it allows the operation to be ascribed to the United Nations when in fact it is the United States who is firmly in the driver’s seat. This fact raises doubts among some Africans about the motives of the United States. It raises the suspicion that the United States has an interest in assuming the role of a policeman for a variety of reasons:

1. The United States needs to keep its military busy in order to keep its military industrial alliance running.
2 A second suspicion is that despite the end of the Cold War the Horn of Africa is still of strategic importance, particularly in light of the fact that the shipping lanes pass from the Gulf area through Horn area. There is also the feeling that with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism the purpose of the United States is perhaps to send a message to two countries in particular in that area: Iran and the Sudan, whose destabilizing attempts in this apart of the world are becoming increasingly familiar.


In addition to this, several Third World countries will no doubt regard the new American role with apprehension. Though many profess to understand the justification of American intervention in Somalia, they are concerned that a similar initiative can be taken against them in the future in the name of peace and world security, in the name of freedom and human rights. Even supporters of the American action are worried that resurgence of old feuds of a tribal and ethnic nature that threaten the very existence of the state might be used to justify interference of a new colonial character.


The unilateral approach is further complicated by the role of the media in globalizing American concern over the plight in Somalia. The ability to beam televised images of the slaughter and starvation into American living rooms instantly has profoundly changed the moral and political calculus. As one American put it, will the world end up rescuing Somalia while ignoring Sudan merely because the former proved more photogenic? At issue here is ‘whether the media is qualified to influence, if not to decide, where intervention should be directed.


The third element in the unilateral approach concerns the objectives of enforced intervention (As announced by Bush, the mission in Somalia is intended to be a quick fix to make the country safe for humanitarian aid and to pullout, but leave the United Nations forces to keep the peace. But for the peace to be kept it must be made first because the military and political aspects of the problems will not be easily separated. In the Somalia case, setting the deadline for departure has only complicated the military and political aspects of the situation.


The relationship between the United States and United Nations has now come to the center precisely because the objectives were not very clear from the beginning. The hand-over from the United States to the United Nations is turning into something of a hangover with bickering and recriminations between UN and US officials. The problem is that the role of the UN has not been clearly defined, but it would seem to assume some form of trusteeship. Now this is a word one does not hear or use now because it is very sensitive, but I fail to see how any United Nations role in Somalia can fail not to come under some form of trusteeship. Trusteeship is a concept that conjures up in African minds unpleasant notions of colonialism in Africa, of the ‘white man’s burden’. Will the United Nations as a whole accept the idea of superimposing itself upon a member state? Even if this is so, what about other Somalia-like situations elsewhere? There is an element of irony in this situation. Most people in the Third World would have preferred the military intervention in Somalia to be undertaken by the UN. But in Somalia itself, the preference is for the US. The UN is held in contempt for its impotence and for its failure to prevent the Somalia crisis before it exploded into a human tragedy.


There is a consensus in the Third World that in the post-Cold War period the UN is in urgent need of changes to allow its authority to become more effective. There is no consensus however on the kind of changes required, and it is not clear if these changes would mean the reduction of the role of the US or if such changes would be acceptable to the dominant world power.


If what is intended is a new era of collective responsibility, this would probably turn out to be an illusion. It is like the League of Nations revisited. Just as the United States absence from that organization doomed the notion of collective security, the looming preponderance of American power today is found to make the same notion largely irrelevant. The problem is that the US has no convincing mechanism for global policy or even for its regional components. The rules of enforced intervention for humanitarian or other reasons have not been spelled out with any clarity. What is clear is that in the post-Cold War period a few sacred cows are being slaughtered, or are at least in the process of going to the slaughter house.


First is the concept of national sovereignty. The underlying logic of such an operation (of so-called enforced intervention) is that any country that loses the ability to govern itself loses its sovereignty. The prerogatives of sovereignty are no longer an irreversibly acquired right. What in the past had been regarded as internal affairs are now regarded or considered international or American concerns. It is important to note that this process had started even before the end of the Cold War and had taken the form of intervention without sending in the Marines. The structural adjustment programs beginning in the mid-1980s culminated in the new conditionality linking bilateral and multilateral aid to democratization and the market economy. With the end of the Cold War the West and the US in particular gained considerably greater leverage over Third World countries than ever before. The challenge is to use this leverage to prevent the kind of state disintegration taking place in countries ranging from Russia to Zaire. I am not sure that structural adjustment advocates are aware of the destructive forces that they are wittingly or unwittingly unleashing, but that is another story.


Second, the force of nationalism is in the way, giving wane, giving way to lesser forms of identification based on ethnic, religious, tribal, and even clan affiliation. The new unipolar nationalism seems to encourage this trend rather than to negate it. It is also human and political progression from the family to the clan to the tribe to the nation, not to speak of the concept of world government; that is now going in reverse gear. The multiplication of this process is now breeding new grounds for intervention.


Third, the idea of American-led intervention is suddenly gaining acceptance. The Monroe Doctrine is being globalized. To some in the Third World, this may smack of imperialism, but with the absence of the countervailing presence of the Soviet Union, there is little they can do about it. Some may even find that benign imperium is much more preferable to benign neglect. Yet enforced intervention for humanitarian reasons has its own limitations. It may ease the human crisis, but so far no one has figured out how it can resolve the political crisis, let alone the economic one. Now if the intervention in Somalia is to be a test case, the real test would not be with the fairly easy military aspect, but with the political and economic problems of rebuilding the country, of making an infrastructure, of actually restoring Somalia as a nation with its own national sovereignty, an independent state. Another limitation of intervention is its essential selective nature to be applied when it is relative cost free. If you actually hear someone echoing the words, “lucky Somalia,” look closer, that someone will probably turn out to be a Bosnian or a Cambodian or a Sudanese.


The objectives of enforced intervention remain murky. Like the old system of collective security, which has long been discredited and was miraculously revived during the Gulf crisis, the very application of enforced intervention is in fact an admission of system failure; that the system had failed. So to overcome this limitation, the only way is to make intervention unnecessary in the first place.


Now I would like to conclude by saying some general remarks. Morality is a very ambiguous and slippery concept in international affairs. The real and the ideal have not become one. The present triumph of the West has not resolved all contradictions, and indeed may have enormously and needlessly compounded this contradiction. History has not ended; it may just be repeating itself. The picture on our TV screens may be sending an unintended message. This is not 1993, but 1893. If Kipling were resurrected today, he would probably find little in the global scene to prevent him from going to sleep again. The term organization is going back with a vengeance from where it originally sprang. Perhaps a lot of the answers to the present international disorder can be found by pondering over some of the lessons of history.



Discussant: Professor Zartman

I think this is a very puzzling presentation. In some ways, the arguments are so convoluted, they could only have been thought up in a Victorian building such as this one. But I think that they leave me with a lot of basic questions about the basis from which the argument begins. The discussion starts with the argument of the United States’ obsession for morality or moralization. I think that the comments perhaps come as a shock to the Americans who found that it was a positive value to at least look for morality in foreign policy or at least, alternatively, to find perhaps or rejoice over a foreign policy that we thought was bereft of strategic concerns. I give up when I am asked to go through an argument that sees a strategic aspect to the United States intervention in the Somalia of today.


It leads me to the first question: is there indeed a place for morality at all in international relations or foreign action? Is it something that should be considered at all times, or something that should be considered exceptionally? Is it completely outside the considerations of foreign policy discussion? Indeed, what is morality as it relates to international relations?


The rest of discussions and input by other participants is unfortunately missing…









May 19, 1993


Dr. Mohamed Beshir Hamid

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
1000 Jefferson Drive S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20560


Dear Mohamed:


As the term of your fellowship approaches, I am writing simply to say what a pleasure it has been to have had you in residence this past year as a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


There is no reason why you should know how rigorous and competitive the process of selecting Fellows is. We had over eight hundred applications for the three dozen awards we were able to make. Thus, you should feel immensely honored to have been so highly regarded by the scholars–external to the Wilson Center–who reviewed your research application to us.


I want to thank you for having been so vigorous and responsible a participant in the intellectual life of the Center. The public seminar you gave about the recent U.S. intervention in Somalia was the very model of what we hope such events will be at the Wilson Center. Your presentation was thoughtful, provocative, and compelling, as should have been clear from the lively debate and comment it stirred among fellow panelists and with members of the audiences. I am grateful as well for your private seminar to Fellows and staff about the research you are pursuing on prospects for democratization in Africa: that presentation too was a great success. And I just learned that you were interviewed by the staff members who produce our radio program, Dialogue, and that the editors of our newsletter, The Wilson Center Report, are eager to have the transcript of the broadcast for publication.


You have been a valued and committed member of our community, and we shall miss you. I hope that you will be in a position to return often as a visitor to the Center.




James M. Mdrris


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