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EDITORIALS

Somalia is a bomb threatening to explode. Washington knows that, but it has no good policy options.

December 26, 2006

DESPITE THE MANY foreign policy failings of this administration, in one thing President Bush has always been dead right: his diagnosis of the dangers of failed states as breeding grounds for terror, crime and despair. After 9/11, the Bush administration understood that weak states could not only endanger their inhabitants and their neighbors but also, to the extent that places like Afghanistan gave haven to terrorists or other "non-state actors," they could menace the rest of the world. The September 2002 National Security Strategy report summed up the threat: "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones."

Somalia has since 1991 been on the international watch list of places with nonexistent or nonfunctioning governments that could easily become incubators for mayhem. Garrett Jones, a retired CIA case officer, recently wrote in our pages that Somalia long ago ceased to be a failed state and is more properly a "space between countries."

Now, like a cancer we can monitor but not cure, the agony of Somalia (and its "Black Hawk Down" memories for Americans) has metastasized from violent, warlord-dominated anarchy into a bellicose, fundamentalist Islamic regime that controls much of the country. As in Afghanistan, its Islamic courts have brought some much-needed law and order, but its new rulers are emulating the Taliban in all the harshest ways. And, just as Osama bin Laden requested, they're plenty cozy with Al Qaeda. While U.S. officials say they have confirmed the presence of only half a dozen senior Al Qaeda leaders in Somalia, the number of Al Qaeda members or affiliates is in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, the Islamists and their everbelligerent neighbors, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, are all preparing for a nasty proxy war that is likely to engulf the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia attacked Islamist positions in Somalia on Sunday. And, as if a major regional war weren't dreadful enough, a civil war is also beginning between the Islamists and the weak, unpopular band in the hinterlands of Baidoa that passes for an internationally-backed Somali government. The Islamists are virtually certain to win. Refugees are already on the move as civilians in Baidoa, sizing up the military odds, vote with their feet. Estimates are that 400,000 people could flee to Kenya, where they are unlikely to receive a delighted welcome.

Knowing the dangers of allowing Somalia to fester, could the Bush administration have prevented this? Sure. But the cost of doing so was unacceptably high -- to the administration, to Congress, to the American people, to the Europeans and to the United Nations. None of the options for serious nation building in xenophobic, tribal Somalia are politically, financially or morally palatable.

The U.S. could have backed the least odious of Somalia's warlords -- surely a human rights abuser -- and hoped that dictatorship would prove better than anarchy, that "our" warlord would prove malleable and educable and that he could eventually be forced to hold elections or be retired to south Florida. That well-worn model has earned a justifiably bad reputation. We could have occupied the country ourselves -- if anybody had wanted to, and if we hadn't been busy remaking Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. could have, as some idealists proposed, asked the U.N. Security Council to place Somalia under international trusteeship (that's temporary colonization by a nicer name). And who would have volunteered the troops and the money for such a quixotic mission?

Correct diagnosis is a vital first step. But with failing states, the cures are more elusive.

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