BAIDOA, SOMALIA Last month, far away from this forlorn "City of Death" where anarchy and hunger had once claimed tens of thousands of lives, Gen. Colin Powell said some remarkably upbeat things about our military misadventures in Somalia. That Powell was willing to talk about the subject at all was newsworthy. Most people would just as soon forget the Somalia disaster.
For Republicans, Somalia was George Bush's embarrassing last hurrah; for Democrats, it was Bill Clinton's first big foreign policy flop. And for the average American, it was one more example of foolish leaders getting our fine young troops killed in places they never should have been sent.
But for Colin Powell, Somalia had been this nation's first grand attempt at humanitarian military intervention, and it taught some lessons worth remembering -- some we might want to review as we debate sending our troops to Bosnia on yet another rescue mission.
Powell's argument, in a nutshell, is that we were right to answer the 911 fire alarm when the Somalis' house was burning down. But we should not have hung around afterward pretending to solve domestic squabbles we didn't understand.
"Where things went wrong is when we decided, the U.N. decided, that somehow we could tell the Somalians how they should live with each other. At that point we lost the bubble," Powell said in an interview with The Washington Post, offering an odd but apt description of the tragic sequel to Operation Restore Hope.
It's now been six months since the last U.N. peacekeeping troops retreated in frustration from Somalia. Almost all civilian relief agencies and non-governmental personnel left with them or soon after. Almost everyone predicted that without their help, Somalia would quickly sink back into its nightmarish misery.
Little was left to show for the enormous investment in time, money and human lives we and our allies had made trying to put this East African Humpty Dumpty back together. The country still lay in ruins, with no functioning government, no public services, no viable economy, no judicial system. The feuding clan warlords who had trashed it still ruled in their fiefdoms, unbowed and uncompromising, making and breaking alliances among themselves.
What surprised me when I returned here a few weeks ago, however, was that Somalia had refused to relapse into its earlier spasms of violence. Inexplicably, the truce U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley compelled the feuding warlords to sign back in December 1992 (with the robust backing of nearly 30,000 heavily armed allied troops) generally seemed to be holding. People were not starving again. As Powell himself noted, "There has been no image of swollen-bellied kids on our CNN screens [after all]."
Somalia Lesson No. 1: Overwhelming military force can help to halt fighting, end suffering and save lives. Hundreds of thousands of lives, in fact.
I wanted to see what was happening for myself, so when one of the warlords invited me to come take a look, I jumped at the chance. Five others -- among them a respected U.S. historian, two clerical types looking for a responsible agency to distribute medical supplies from their parishioners and an American entrepreneur hoping to sell a telephone system -- accepted his invitation as well, all of us willing to risk being "used" for public relations purposes in order to judge the state of things first-hand.
Our host was the most celebrated warlord of them all, a man with a PR problem to rival that of Attila the Hun: Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. But his people told us that "President" Aideed (his clan confederates had bestowed the title on him in June, shortly after the last U.N. peacekeepers fled) wanted to make a new start with Americans.
At the outset, anyway, Aideed's new Somalia seemed a lot like his old one. While en route to Africa, we'd heard reports that his heavily armed militia forces had captured Baidoa as part of a major new military offensive. Trapped there as virtual hostages were said to be 23 foreign relief workers (including five Americans) loosely affiliated with U.N. aid agencies.
Unanimously, our group determined that we were not going to let our visit be used to sanction hostage-taking, and we sent word ahead that we wouldn't budge from Nairobi until the United Nations itself assured us the relief workers were safe and sound. Soon a reply came back via the United Nations that everything had been sorted out and the "hostages" were free to So we proceeded directly to Baidoa, hoping to help evacuate those who wished to leave and then get on with our own visit.
But there were no grateful relief workers in sight when we landed, no welcoming committee, no explanation. Instead, armed militiamen trundled us off to the general's field headquarters and dumped us without ceremony in the middle of a presidential Cabinet meeting. It was instantly apparent that a high-level debate was raging over what to do with the unfortunate relief workers, our friends from the United Nations -- and now ourselves.
On one side of the debate were ranged an assortment of senior "state security" agents whose type I knew well from my previous service in Somalia (I realized I had not missed them one bit). The agents, we learned, had discovered evidence that some of the foreigners were suspiciously cozy with trouble-making dissidents in Baidoa. This group was urging Aideed not to release them until charges were thoroughly investigated.
Ranged on the other side were, let's say, an "internationalist" faction concerned about the embarrassment of yet another incident with the United Nations, particularly in the eyes of the distinguished guests who had just arrived. This group was urging a more statesman-like approach on Aideed, and we did what we could to reinforce their arguments.
With occasional concessions and much posturing, the debate ran on for two more days. In the end it was Aideed who stepped forward with a grand face-saving compromise, dismissed the rumors, released the detainees and even apologized to the United Nations and to us for the "misunderstanding" his overzealous security agents had caused. Maybe we were going to see a "new" Somalia after all!
As for us distinguished visitors, we felt we had validated another timely precept:
Somalia Lesson No. 2: You can't do peacemaking unless you swallow the risk, go where the fighting is and dirty your shoes.
As promised, Aideed made himself quite accessible, so we took advantage to question him more closely about his Baidoa offensive. He bridled when we used the word "capture," however. He had only come to mediate a local clan dispute, he insisted, not to impose his rule or grab territory. There was no need to "capture" a town whose people had long ago joined his camp.
He pointed out, and we had to agree, that we had seen no signs of recent fighting in Baidoa and that its streets and shops were full of people peacefully going about their business.
He reminded us that he had spent most of the previous day and night in marathon meetings with local clan elders, working to untangle the strands of their dispute (the very one in which our relief workers were alleged to have meddled).
He also reminded us that we'd watched thousands cheer his promises of political peace, regional autonomy, a free market economy and multiparty elections at a rally staged to welcome him at the Baidoa soccer field. Did they look to us like "captured people?" he asked.
(We granted him these points, although I still suspect what we saw was more akin to Powell's doctrine of overwhelming military superiority: Deploy enough firepower, and even your bitterest enemies will turn out to cheer for you.)
With the "hostage" crisis resolved, our group was finally able to take the closer look we'd come for. In and around Baidoa, much of what we saw looked like the same old Somalia to me -- battered buildings, broken-down trucks, burned-out warehouses.
But if you squinted just right, you could see some encouraging signs too: City streets were crowded, tea shops thriving, markets bustling. Goods seemed plentiful for those who could pay, and people seemed relaxed and friendly to outsiders.
Later, on the highway down to the coast, we found buses and trucks piled high with passengers coming from somewhere, merchandise going elsewhere. But we also saw more signs of serious fighting between two subclans whose dispute Aideed claimed he was attempting to resolve, and sensed more nervousness on the part of our escorts.
But in the agricultural heartland at Afgoi and along the Shebeli River, we passed sorghum fields carefully banked and planted, sesame and cotton growing tall, citrus for sale in heaps on the highway, barrels of ripe tomatoes on donkey carts, bananas ripening, camels copulating and cattle fattening for shipment to Red Sea butcher shops.
And in Mogadishu at last (where some areas were still "off limits"), we pushed through incredible traffic jams and ate at crowded restaurants. Ships were loading bananas in the port. The central market was teeming, protected by its own private police force. The Somali shilling was trading at stable rates -- with no protection at all. And a half-dozen crude newspapers were circulating freely.
Most hopeful of all, we saw practically no guns on the street and heard almost none at night. Disarmament, the elusive goal of American and U.N. peacekeepers, finally seemed to be occurring in their absence, perhaps spontaneously.
To be sure, the only schools operating were Koranic schools. The only regularly scheduled air service carried bales of khat, the Somalis' narcotic of choice. The only telephones were satellite links. The only electricity came from noisy private generators, though it was often shared among neighbors. The only water came from private wells, and there wasn't much of it.
Hospitals were dismal and might as well have been closed. Drugs cost a fortune. Rubble and wreckage still choked the streets. Some buildings had been cleaned up, windows replaced and shell holes patched, but we saw little major renovation. And the big problem on everyone's mind was how to create jobs for the youngsters who'd gone to war instead of to school. In a word, there was more poverty than progress in Aideed's "new" Somalia -- but at least no one seemed to be starving.
Was this just a "show" for foreign guests, as several Aideed critics whispered to us? Or were Somalis themselves finally putting their nation and their political system back together again, absent our help?
As Powell observed of the people here: "They had been solving their political problems for a thousand years before Jeffersonian democracy came upon the scene."
Somalia Lesson No. 3: Even overwhelming force can't solve another people's political problems. They must do that for themselves.
When we lunched with Aideed one afternoon before leaving Baidoa, I read him some excerpts from The Post's interview with his old adversary. He was fascinated. It was no surprise that he agreed with Powell's central point: We should have stopped while we were ahead.
But what bothered Aideed wasn't so much our arrogance as our ignorance. "I think if Americans had tried to understand our system, our traditions, our history, our way of life before sending troops and experts into Somalia to change everything," he reflected, "we would still be close friends."
Perhaps. But it was fortunate for Somalia that Americans hurried to lend a helping hand, even as we were slow to understand how a nation can collapse in turmoil and misery. Had we delayed our intervention until we "understood" the conflict's root causes, many thousands more would have died and clan warfare might yet be raging.
Gen. Powell would probably agree.
Frank Crigler was U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 1987 to 1990.