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Scholarly Analysis # 1:Methodological Approaches to International Relations
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Copyright © 2001 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.
SAIS Review 21.1 (2001) 147-158
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Approaching Humanitarian Intervention Strategically: The Case of Somalia
John G. Fox
In Carl von Clausewitz's classic treatment of strategy, On War, he makes clear that war is never an autonomous activity, that it finds meaning only as an instrument for reaching political goals--hence his famous dictum "war is the continuation of politics by other means." In an age of frequent calls for humanitarian military interventions, it is clear from the case study of Somalia that Clausewitz's insight holds true for humanitarian crises that are caused by war as well. Such crises, unlike those caused by natural disasters, cannot be isolated from the prevailing political-military situation. Intervening militarily in such a crisis with "purely humanitarian" goals can be perilous in that such goals frequently cannot be reached without altering the political conditions that caused the crisis.
In 1992, when the United States decided to intervene militarily in Somalia, U.S. decision-makers faced such a crisis. The goal of Operation Restore Hope was to put an end to famine in Somalia, but that famine was largely the result of fighting among various clan-based militias. Decision-makers should have realized from the outset that in order to end the starvation it would be necessary to strike a blow to the power of the warlords and their militias as well as to aid the development of some sort of civilian political structures that would encourage an alternative to the politics of the gun. In short, U.S. military action should have been dictated by a definitive set of political goals. [End Page 147]
Once the strategic goals of the operation had been specified in political terms--the establishment of stability that warlords no longer could threaten--operations and tactics consistent with the overall goals could have been formulated. A realistic assessment of the resources and time required to reach the operation's aims could have been made. Armed with this assessment, decision-makers could have decided whether they still wished to go ahead with the mission.
Decision-makers instead viewed the crisis in Somalia as purely humanitarian in nature. This was a fundamental strategic error caused by their backgrounds and by the process through which the decision to intervene in Somalia was made within the U.S. government, especially within the U.S. military. Strategic misjudgment led in turn to a series of operational decisions that, while understandable from a purely military or purely humanitarian point of view, aggravated rather than improved the political situation in Somalia. When military intervention ultimately faltered, it left behind both a series of questionable "lessons" and a paralysis within the Clinton administration when faced with later decisions on humanitarian intervention.
Background to the Intervention
In January 1991, the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu found itself in the line of fire between Somali President Siad Barre's troops and armed opponents. 1 As fighting increased, U.S. Marines and Navy SEALS evacuated the embassy staff and a large number of foreigners. Following their overthrow the president, rebel factions fell to sporadic, sometimes heavy, internecine fighting. Having narrowly avoided a loss of American lives during the evacuation of the Mogadishu embassy, the U.S. government was not inclined to risk them anew through an on-the-ground presence in such an anarchic environment. For the next eighteen months, the U.S. government "covered" Somalia by means of a Nairobi-based Foreign Service Officer, a so-called "Somalia watcher," and one U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor. I was the Somalia watcher.
In the summer of 1992, a famine, caused in part by continued fighting and lawlessness, sharply worsened in southern Somalia. News of the deteriorating conditions reached Washington through diplomatic reporting from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, through reports by non-governmental agencies active in Somalia, and [End Page 148] increasingly by newspaper and television journalists reporting from the south of the country. Senators Paul Simon (D-IL) and Nancy Kassenbaum (R-KS) visited the country, reported their observations, and urged U.S. action. In August 1992, President Bush, reacting to the worsening famine, ordered the U.S. military to mount an airlift of food and medicines into Somalia from Kenya. By late fall, there were persistent reports that, despite the U.S. effort, warlords were pillaging the bulk of the food aid. Many voices in Congress, the mass media, and non-governmental organizations urged deeper U.S. action to end the famine. 2
The Decision to Intervene
In parallel with the growing concern regarding the situation in Somalia, key U.S. government agencies were rethinking the problem and slowly coming to the conclusion that a larger and more forceful U.S. military intervention was both feasible and desirable. 3 President Bush asked his staff to outline policy choices on Somalia, making it obvious to the various bureaucracies that the issue had top-level attention. Furthermore, a telegram to Washington from the U.S. mission to the United Nations emphasized the need to increase UN credibility in peacekeeping. The telegram was consistent with Bush's views and had obvious application to the case of Somalia. Consequently, it increased pressure on the Deputies' Committee, an interagency body composed of the second-ranking officials of relevant agencies, such as the Department of State, Department of Defense, and CIA, to be more aggressive in its approach to the crisis.
In a November 25 meeting, the Deputies' Committee presented President Bush with three policy options: 1) provision of U.S. air-power and sea-power in support of a strengthened UN force; 2) limited U.S. military intervention as a prelude to an expanded UN force; and 3) insertion of a U.S. division, plus allies, under UN auspices. To the surprise of the committee, which had formed a consensus around the second option, Bush selected the third, most aggressive approach. The president's decision soon became even more forceful when General Joseph Hoar, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), concluded that the intervention would require two divisions rather than one. Despite the choice of option three, President Bush described the impending U.S. intervention as "purely humanitarian." The mission of the coalition forces, he said, was "to create a secure environment in the hardest-hit [End Page 149] parts of Somalia so that food can move from ships overland to the people in the countryside...devastated by starvation." 4
In evaluating the process of making the decision, several points deserve emphasis in regard to future lessons to learn. It appears as if President Bush drove the decision himself and that his primary motivation was compassion for starving Somalis. In particular, a July 10 message from the U.S. ambassador
to Kenya, Smith Hempstone, entitled "A Day in Hell" that described horrific conditions in a crowded refugee camp on the Kenya-Somalia border appears to have been an important spur to his decision to undertake the August airlift. 5 Bush was also eager to strengthen the UN's peacekeeping credibility. There is no indication that Bush saw more conventional U.S. interests at stake in the Somalia crisis. Perhaps most importantly, it seems as if Bush approached the crisis as being "purely humanitarian" rather than considering it on a political plane.
Second, the interagency process as well as outside actors served as a mechanism for airing a wide variety of views and for formulating options for the president to choose from. The Deputies' Committee discussed Somalia in numerous meetings throughout the summer and fall. All relevant foreign affairs agencies were represented in those meetings and had ample opportunity to express their views. Moreover, non-governmental actors, specifically relief organizations, proved influential in the decision-making process. Although not formally a part of the process, their well-informed lobbying played a role in persuading the U.S. government to act. Moreover, shortly before the president announced the beginning of Operation Restore Hope, a delegation of U.S. non-governmental agency representatives was invited to CENTCOM Headquarters in Tampa and asked to comment on the operational plan. According to Ambassador
Robert Oakley, President Bush's special envoy to Somalia during Operation Restore Hope, their suggestions proved useful in identifying the most urgent humanitarian needs and in planning logistical approaches. 6
In sum, the process of creating Operation Restore Hope incorporated a wide spectrum of views, including those of the military, of governmental and non-governmental relief officials, and [End Page 150] officials from the Department of State and Department of Defense, both foreign policy and strategy experts. Nevertheless, despite the wide variety of voices influencing the decision-making process, the plan was essentially a military one; CENTCOM drafted the operational plan that President Bush ultimately adopted. It was a plan dominated by practical military concerns, with little consideration given to political or strategic matters.
Moving Ahead in a Political Vacuum
In retrospect, the most interesting and consequential aspect of President Bush's decision to intervene in Somalia lay in the failure to establish realistic political objectives for the mission. Bush viewed the mission as purely humanitarian in nature and believed that a follow-on operation, led by the UN with substantial U.S. military participation, would take responsibility for the political tasks of national reconciliation. The U.S. operation's stated goal, to create a sufficiently secure environment to allow food aid to be distributed successfully, was vague and led to bickering between the United States and the UN concerning whether the situation was sufficiently secure to allow the United States to hand-over the operation to the UN. In other words, the lack of clear and meaningful strategic goals for the operation meant that the United States would hand over to the UN an essentially unchanged political situation. Moreover, the conditions to prevail at the time of the hand-over would be poorly defined. A small but experienced diplomatic staff, headed by Ambassador
Oakley, lacked a clear political mandate and was largely created to assist the U.S. military in dealing with the warlords. 7
The absence of political goals is remarkable for several reasons. First, the "Powell doctrine" of then Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, stresses the importance of clear aims, including political goals, for any military operation. Second, as previously noted, the decision-making process leading to Operation Restore Hope incorporated State Department and civilian Defense Department officials who might be expected to view military interventions in political terms. Finally, it was widely, if vaguely, understood at the time of the decision that it would be difficult for a purely humanitarian operation to succeed in the man-made chaos prevailing in Somalia.
Op-ed writers with no specialized knowledge of Somalia and Americans sending letters to the editors of home-town newspapers [End Page 151] voiced essentially the same worry: what good will it do to feed Somalis for a few weeks or months, then leave them prey to the same warlords as before? In his memoirs, General Powell acknowledges that he and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had similar concerns: "The famine had been provoked not by the whims of nature but by internal feuding. How were we to get out of Somalia without turning the country back to the same warlords whose rivalries had produced the famine in the first place?" 8 Powell did not respond to his own question, but the implied answer was to use the military intervention to alter the political-military situation in Somalia enough to leave minimum stability behind after U.S. forces left. In other words, it was necessary to approach the intervention in a strategic, Clausewitzian manner.
Why did the United States not pursue this approach? First, as noted above, the administration intended to leave political questions to the subsequent UN operation, a hope that seems wildly optimistic in retrospect. This illusion may have encouraged decision-makers simply to "assign" tasks they did not wish to undertake themselves to the future UN operation.
Second, CENTCOM developed the operational plan for Operation Restore Hope based on military feasibility, without serious attention to political considerations. For example, CENTCOM rejected the proposal of independent relief expert Fred Cuny to bypass Mogadishu port and deliver aid to outlying regions, partly in order to weaken the Mogadishu warlords. Diplomatic reporting from the embassy in Nairobi had also repeatedly supported a regional political strategy and a de-emphasis of Mogadishu in the U.S. approach to Somalia, although not in the context of a U.S. military intervention. From a strictly military and logistical point of view, however, centering operations on Mogadishu, with its airport and seaport, made sense.
Third, another influential participant in the Somalia decision, the USAID, argued that U.S. relief operations in Somalia should be free of political considerations. For example, Andrew Natsios, USAID assistant administrator and the president's special coordinator for Somalia relief, rebuffed a proposal that the relatively calm northeastern area of Somalia should be provided food aid in order to increase its stability. Natsios argued that this would amount to using food aid for political purposes. 9
However, CENTCOM and USAID were not the only actors who failed to set political goals for the Somalia intervention. There is no [End Page 152] indication in the published record that any agency, including the State Department, urged a more political approach. Oakley provides an explanation for the inattention to the political realities of Somalia by the great haste in which Operation Restore Hope was conceived. 10 He points out that the operation was put together in the ten days between the president's decision and the arrival of the first troops in Mogadishu, although, as noted above, contingency planning had begun earlier. CENTCOM's plan, Oakley says, was relatively brief and it left many details to be worked out on the ground. Agencies had little time to reflect on it and, perhaps, to question it.
Oakley also notes that only a few weeks remained in the Bush administration when the operation began. Bush therefore hesitated to commit the country to the sort of longer-term operation that a more politically oriented plan would have necessitated. According to Oakley, Bush was even more reluctant to make a longer-term commitment because he could not consult with Congress, which had just been elected and would not assemble until after Bush had left office.
Furthermore, Oakley argues that his own professional experience and that of other key figures influenced their views of how Operation Restore Hope should function. For example, he and Lieutenant General Robert Johnston, the commander of U.S. troops in Somalia, had both served in Lebanon, and were thus well aware of the damage that could be inflicted by poorly organized militias with primitive weapons. Oakley states also that his experience in Vietnam and that of Johnston's deputy, (then) Brigadier General Anthony Zinni, led them to avoid engaging the United States in a civil war, a risk associated with a more active political approach. Oakley and Hirsh offer a clue as to why other agencies did not scrutinze the military's plan more closely when they describe a turning point in the decision to intervene. They report that, on November 21, 1992, General Powell's representative to the Deputies' Committee, Admiral David Jeremiah, "startled the group by saying 'if you think U.S. forces are needed, we can do the job.'" 11 Until that point, other agencies might well have feared that any plan of action might encounter strong resistance from the Joint Chiefs on using military force. One State Department official later remarked that "the military 'came forward' after deciding it was a workable mission," and "he was not inclined to question an initiative that surprised and delighted him." 12 Perhaps the representatives of other agencies reacted similarly to the Pentagon's unexpected offer and were likewise disinclined to [End Page 153] question the details or to press for a more politically-grounded approach.
Another possible explanation for the inattention to political issues, maintained in the face of widespread unease about the prospect of continuing instability in Somalia, is that Operation Restore Hope was a truly new departure for the United States. Although the inherently political nature of humanitarian operations was conceptually familiar to U.S. decision-makers due to foreign policy successes like the Marshall Plan, in practice they were simply not accustomed to thinking in these terms.
In sum, the failure to view the situation in Somalia strategically was not the fault of any one individual or organization. It was a failure by all those involved in the decision to act upon the noted reality that politics, not a lack of food, was at the heart of Somalia's misery. This failure was compounded and encouraged by a lack of time, by narrowly-focused thinking on the part of the military and USAID, by the personal experiences of key figures, and by the apparent failure of those who should have been most likely to view such an operation strategically--the State Department, the civilian side of the Pentagon, and General Powell--to do so.
The Price of Ignoring Politics
Not placing Operation Restore Hope into a framework of sensible political goals had important effects. First, the failure to establish a minimum of political stability made the "hand-over" to the subsequent UN-led operation more difficult than it might have been, and later led to recriminations over who was at fault for failing to stabilize the political situation.
Second, the reluctance to recognize the political nature of the Somalia situation later led to confusion about what the international community's goals in the country ought to be, and to criticism of the UN for expanding its operation to include ambitious political objectives: that is, for succumbing to "mission creep" aimed at "nation-building." 13 A more realistic understanding of the situation at the outset would have made clear that the U.S.-led operation itself had unrealistically narrow goals. This could have produced a common definition of which political objectives were appropriate for both the U.S.-led and UN-led operations.
Third, choosing Mogadishu as the main base of operations, a decision that made sense from both a military and a relief point of [End Page 154] view, made the capital more valuable, both politically and financially, to the contending Somali factions. The decision was, therefore, bound to increase competition and tension between the two principal Mogadishu warlords, Ali "Mahdi" Mohamed and Mohamed Farah "Aideed."
Finally, the decision to concentrate efforts on the warring south--understandable from a relief point of view, since the greatest famine was there--implied a relative neglect of the more peaceful northwestern and northeastern regions. These may have been more fruitful areas in which to begin to restore Somalia's stability. By directing almost all aid to the south, Operation Restore Hope gave northerners the impression that they were being "punished" for good behavior, while the south was being "rewarded" for bad behavior. 14
The initial strategic error of failing to establish realistic and meaningful political goals for Operation Restore Hope therefore led directly to a series of operational errors. These failures aggravated tensions between the United States and the UN, between the warlords, and between regions of Somalia.
Could it Have Turned out Differently?
The fundamental truth about Somalia in 1992 was that its disastrous condition, including but not limited to the well publicized famine, was due to a war caused by a number of clan-based militias. For the most part, the men who led these militias owed their standing in society and, increasingly, their wealth, to the war itself. Most Somali warlords, therefore, had no interest in peace and had an increasingly large stake in the continuation of the war. To put an end to Somalia's humanitarian catastrophe called for restoring some minimum level of political stability to the country and weakening the warlords. It was not necessary to restore a centralized Somalia state in order to accomplish this, but it was essential to attain a level of stability and security at which some politics other than that of the gun would be possible. Achieving this in a country as troubled and unfamiliar to Americans as Somalia would not amount to "nation-building," but it would be ambitious.
If from the beginning decision-makers had clearly understood that a rather challenging set of political goals was essential to the success of Operation Restore Hope, the structure and scope of the operation would have been much different. A much larger diplomatic [End Page 155] component would have been called for, including some of the military's civil-military affairs specialists. This might have necessitated calling up reserve officers. Disarming the warlords in order to weaken them and to allow other, more peaceful forces to emerge would have been considered seriously from the beginning. Importantly, the operation would have been viewed from the outset as likely to take considerable time, years rather than months.
In addition, the operation would probably have been more regional in nature, de-emphasizing Mogadishu in order to bypass and therefore weaken the warlords there. The operation would have paid more attention to the more peaceful regions of Somalia, such as the northwest and the northeast, on which the stability of the country might have been rebuilt, but which were less in need of emergency relief than the warring south. Among other things, this would have required a new political approach to the breakaway northwestern region, the "Somaliland Republic."
Faced with such an ambitious undertaking, President Bush might have decided not to intervene at all. Alternatively, he might have chosen one of the other options put to him by the Deputies' Committee, which placed more of the burden on the United Nations from the very beginning. In any case, there is no guarantee that any type of operation would have worked in Somalia, and I think it is unlikely that any would have. Who can say with confidence how to rebuild political stability from the ground up in a country as radically different from the United States as Somalia? The United States--or, for that matter, the UN--has very few experts on Somalia, and even fewer that could be marshaled into a long-term effort to restore stability to that country. The long-term effort that would have been required, even assuming we knew how to accomplish the task, simply lies beyond what the U.S. is willing to do. George Marshall's famous remark about the Second World War--that Americans are not willing to fight a Thirty Years' War--is true a fortiori for a humanitarian intervention in an area of no strategic consequence to the United States.
Looking to the Future
The U.S.-led military intervention in Somalia had profound consequences for how the United States would view later humanitarian operations overseas and the use of military force, in general. The ultimate failure of the international community's [End Page 156] intervention in Somalia, and especially the death of eighteen Army Rangers in Mogadishu in October 1993, not only forced the end of the operation, it caused the Clinton administration to be more cautious about future such interventions and less likely to risk U.S. casualties. Moreover, questionable or bogus lessons concerning "mission creep," "nation-building," and the effect of U.S. soldiers serving under foreign commanders were drawn from the experience, and came to color official U.S. thinking on military interventions. American reluctance to act during the genocide in Rwanda shortly after the end of the Somalia operation can be attributed in part to the traumatic experience there, as can the U.S. refusal to take decisive action in Bosnia until 1995.
There are, however, lessons that can be applied from the Somalia failure. The Clinton administration attempted to make constructive use of its experience in Somalia and in other overseas humanitarian operations. In May 1997, it issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56, on "Complex Contingency Operations." This directive calls upon foreign affairs agencies to approach situations such as that of Somalia in 1992 in a systematic and strategic manner. PDD-56 mandates, among other things, that the activities of U.S. government agencies involved in a "complex contingency operation" be governed by a "political-military implementation plan," or "pol-mil plan." According to PDD-56, the pol-mil plan "will include a comprehensive situation assessment, mission statement, agency objectives and desired end-state." The pol-mil plan is intended to compel decision-makers to define the objectives of a complex contingency operation, to formulate a concept for achieving those objectives, to define the roles of various U.S. government agencies in the operation, and to identify the resources required to carry out the operation. In short, agencies must define a strategy for the operation.
PDD-56 is a significant step toward remedying the strategic errors made in conceiving Operation Restore Hope. As with any set of procedures, however, PDD-56 can only work if decision-makers embrace its spirit as well as its literal wording. PDD-56 will make a real contribution if its demand for a pol-mil plan is taken as a spur to think through a problem strategically. If, on the other hand, the [End Page 157] plan is treated as a burdensome requirement to be disposed of with minimum effort, as merely a bureaucratic "box to be checked," its potential will remain largely unrealized. After all, the real problem with Operation Restore Hope was that those who should have known better did not insist that the goals of the operation should be, not simply clear and achievable, but also realistically connected to a desired end-state. In the future, U.S. humanitarian operations should build on PDD-56 and adhere to the lessons learned in Somala. The most fundamental of which being that humanitarian operations need to be viewed in the strategic manner laid down almost 200 years ago by Carl von Clausewitz.
John G. Fox, a Foreign Service Officer, was involved extensively in the U.S. intervention in Somalia, serving as political advisor for the 1992 U.S. food airlift and for the opening phase of Operation Restore Hope. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of State.
1. The events leading up to the decision for military intervention in Somalia are well treated in Clarke, Walter and John Hirsch, eds., Learning from Somalia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997) pp. 151-159.
2. For more on the media see, Strobel, Warren, "The CNN Effect," American Journalism Review (May 1996): pp. 33-37.
3. For details see, Menkhaus and Ortmayer, Key Decisions in the Somalia Intervention, Pew Case Studies in International Affairs, Case 464, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 1995.
4. "Bush Sends Forces to Help Somalia," Washington Post, December 5, 1992 p. A1.
5. Oberdorfer, Don, "The Path to Intervention," Washington Post, December 6, 1992, p. A1.
6. Oakley, Robert and John Hirsch, Somalia and Operation Restore Hope (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1995), p. 40.
7. Interview with Ambassador
Robert Oakley, December 1999.
8. Powell, op cit, pp. 565-566.
9. Discussion with Natsios, fall 1992.
10. Interview with Ambassador
Robert Oakley, December 1999.
11. Oakley and Hirsch, op cit, p. 43.
12. Oberdorfer, op cit.
13. "Mission creep" refers to a tendency for a well-defined mission to gradually take on additional responsibilities beyond those originally set for it. "Nation-building" is a less well defined term. In the case of Somalia, it seems to have been used by critics to mean tasks aimed at restoring Somalia as a functioning political entity, as opposed to purely humanitarian aims.
14. Author's discussion with northern political leaders, 1992-1993.
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