The concept of a “humanitarian intervention” is the act of imposing external solutions to internal problems in foreign societies, usually in the third world. It is basically a temporary use of military force to forestall or alleviate the suffering of large numbers of a local population. This, of course, is hardly the real purpose, but its universally the public face of these adventures. Believe it or not, there are full professors of international relations who believe that “humanitarian interventions” exist to assist local populations out of moral idealism.
The host government, if it functions at all, is either helpless to avoid this or is itself the problem. The host government’s consent is not required for this and therefore, it is an imperial mission by definition. This is especially the case where basic needs are not being met: starvation, lack of clean water and the lack of functioning law are all causes of a humanitarian catastrophe (Heinze, 2009, esp ch 1). Often, media treatments of the region are distorted due to widespread ignorance, so the existence of a catastrophe might merely be the invention of the imperial state.
This author has defined “Johnson’s Law” concerning foreign affairs. The Law states: “The more obscure the country, the more the western media will either lie about it or simply be mistaken about it.” In either case, there are so few to correct media errors, it remains as “fact.” Therefore, only regional specialists can make sense out of any “intervention,” since the Law suggests general media treatments will be loaded with mistakes, misinterpretations or outright distortions. For example, in Somalia, anti-American military or guerrilla formations were termed “warlords” without exception in the western media. This gives them a sinister appearance. Were they legitimate? Were they popular? Were they ethical? The reader can be certain few westerners know.
The 1991 US intervention into Somalia was a failure. The reasons for this are not hard to find and are inherent in any escapade of this type. The UN-based military did not operate with a full, functional knowledge of local conditions since, outside of Africa, few people know anything about the country. Worse, strategic demands were just as important as humanitarian goals, believe it or not, especially given the immense strategic significance of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coastlines. This, and the inability to disarm “warlords” led to the withdrawal of the US and the eventual Ethiopian invasion.
In fact, there are good reasons to argue that Somalia is not a country at all, and that its constituent ethnic groups should function on their own. Nations are ethnic groups, not states. The state is a product of a nation. Mere borders do not create a nation, nor can they. Without an ethnic background, official slogans of “national unity” fall on deaf ears. This is a fundamental concern, since it deals with the question as to whether or not the state itself is a problem. One state containing more than one ethnic group or religion is a tinderbox inherently. Recent history gives one no optimism (Hohne, 2002: 390-397).
The idea of “humanitarian” intervention is one where strategic interests are cloaked under concerns of basic survival. Food, shelter, clean water and the basic staples of existence are meant to be ensured by the violence of the intervening force. This force then decides on which faction should rule the country. This too is also considered humanitarian. For the US, her missions have always led to the banning of political parties. In Iraq, the Ba’ath and Social Nationalist Parties were banned in the name of democracy. Therefore, these interventions are imperial adventures.
The United Nations laid out the conditions and broad goals for any mission of this kind. The conditions under which a mission can be engaged are often based on common sense. Most were ignored for Somalia primarily because the parties were not willing to stop fighting, at least, not on UN terms. This operates under the assumption that fighting is inherently evil and there are no good reasons to fight, unless the intervening power does it. Subsequent meetings in Ethiopia and Djibouti strongly suggested that they were willing to lay down arms for local hegemons, but not UN forces. These two states did have detailed knowledge of the area and could have a positive impact. The UN threatened no one, but stronger states would defeat local militias. This is a lesson with great consequence. Not all parties were interested in UN or US help, which is another condition. Importantly, it states:
The peacekeeping operation must be part of a more comprehensive strategy to help resolve a conflict. This often includes political, economic, developmental, institution-building, humanitarian and human rights elements, which must involve other parts of the UN system—both UN bodies and Member States—and other international organizations (UN 2003: 6).
Though containing the word “humanitarian,” this is the normal definition of such intervention. It is the revolutionary restructuring of a society. Thus, the very definition of this intervention understood by the public is incorrect. Legally, the parties must seek assistance, but never has this been the case in these interventions. “International law,” to the extent its legitimate at all, has no enforcement mechanisms and is hence a dead letter.
The commitment of any of the parties in Somalia was questionable. That the intervening party has an “achievable mandate” is another condition, one again, very foggy in 1991. It also explicitly states that “peace is not made overnight” and strongly suggests that any mission must be long term and require outlays of substantial resources. Hence, it is not about clean water or even peace, but the imperial re-creation of an entire way of life. No party at the time was prepared for that, nor would the populations in these areas approve it.
Explicitly addressing the Somalia failure, the UN Handbook states:
Political work in UNOSOM meant being catapulted from one extreme to the next, wavering between efforts to promote peace and rebuild the government and relapses into chaos and violence. . . In the end, their efforts were in vain. International resolve waned and the UN was forced to pull out (UN, 2003: 27).
What is “international resolve,” and why is the term capitalized? Scholars today attack the notion of national identity because it’s artificial, they say, but “international resolve” is a concrete fact. This was occasioned by an attack on Pakistani peacekeepers by the forces of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, considered the main “enemy” of the intervention. Whether or not he was popular or legitimate was never even asked.
It seems he was fairly popular on the ground, and his attacks derailed the whole process. His force was larger than expected, suggesting his popularity, excellent training and logistics. The political will was not there among the foreign states involved. In other words, the strategic and economic benefits were smaller than the needed outlays in political and military resources.
In brief, the mission was compromised by the violation of almost every condition in the UN’s approach to these operations. Add to this the total and elite ignorance of the area and quick labeling of local participants, it almost seems an ad hoc approach to stopping a war so that western powers can maintain access to Red Sea trade. In fact, that’s precisely what it was and even mentioning it seems obvious and elementary.
In 1991, the military rule of Mohammad Siyad Barre collapsed. This was due to a war which united the ethnic, clan-based societies in the country against his “socialist” government. They received Libyan and Ethiopian backing towards the goal of overthrowing Gen. Barre. Two commanders, Mohammed Farah Aidid and Ani Mahdi Mohamed vied for dominance. Negotiations tended to favor the latter, and several states recognized Mohamed’s government in Mogadishu. His rule did not extend past the city. The result was two northern autonomous states.
The resultant loss of life, including an intense drought, led to the issuance of United Nations Resolution 733, permitting the USA, along with a coalition of minor partners, to restore peace to the country. The United Nations Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I) in 1992 was succeeded by UNOSOM II, almost entirely American. The strength of this mission at its height was about 28,000 men. The second incarnation lasted from 1993 to 1995, when this mission, wracked by casualties and uncertainty, withdrew without any functional administration left behind.
The seeds of failure can be found in the UN Mandate for UNOSOM II, the goals were huge:
monitoring that all factions continued to respect the cessation of hostilities and other agreements to which they had consented;
preventing any resumption of violence and, if necessary, taking appropriate action;
maintaining control of the heavy weapons of the organized factions which would have been brought under international control;
seizing the small arms of all unauthorized armed elements;
securing all ports, airports and lines of communications required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance;
protecting the personnel, installations and equipment of the United Nations and its agencies, ICRC as well as NGOs;
continuing mine-clearing, and;
assisting in repatriation of refugees and displaced persons in Somalia (UN, 1993).
Thus, the term “humanitarian mission” was a deliberate subterfuge. Imagine that. The problem is that humanitarian goals and military strategy are seamless. The first two were achievable under conditions prevailing at the time. However, the third and fourth items on the list are another matter. To take “heavy weapons” and “small arms” from “unauthorized” elements would have sunk the UN and US into a major war against experienced guerrillas. It was also not obvious who was “authorized” and who was not. Finally, it is certain the US did not have the authority to authorize anything. It was the will of the stronger, and in this case, the guerrilla formations won.
The agenda here according to the UN was incoherent for these reasons. To secure the infrastructure alone would have exhausted UNOSOMs resources, but it would have been achievable. The failure cannot be laid at the feet of the US, who, as always, behaved arrogantly with little competence, but rather the highly enthusiastic UN Security Council and bureaucracy.
There are three official purposes behind humanitarian involvement in general. First, that a functioning state is needed for even basic services, so the restoration of government administration at all levels was essential. This was part of the second purpose, to eliminate the most substantial anti-state groups and seek a broader civic unity. Finally, given the ends of basic security, the economy was to develop on its own. Yet, the very nature of the UN goals rejects this simple vision. It was PR only.
The above goals require a massive outlay in men and materiel that few governments are willing to commit. Restoration of government, policing elections and overseeing civic restructuring are beyond the purely “humanitarian” goals of this intervention and are part of a comprehensive nation-building project. It is inherently imperial. This intervention was plagued with the distinction between the two remaining blurred. This can be seen in the UN Mandate above.
This put the US in a poor political position since they are automatically seen as a partisan political player rather than a neutral peacekeeper. Never was the later label even considered. In Somalia, popular protest and the poor showing of members of UNOSOM against angry crowds forced the intervention into comic retreat. Islamic militancy captured the politically active population, and US and UN forces were routinely met with protests and riots. It took little effort to stir up trouble against arrogant, ignorant foreigners trying to disarm “unauthorized” groups.
In later years, these goals changed. In Bruton’s book (2010), he lists the fight against terrorists in the country, stopping piracy and preventing regional instability as the newer ends of foreign intervention. Humanitarian issues are described like this:
The Ethiopian invasion, the insurgency, and a persistent drought have aggravated the humanitarian crisis, pushing Somalia to the edge of famine. Some 3.8 million Somalis require food assistance, approximately 1.6 million are internally displaced, and some five hundred thousand are refugees. The delivery of humanitarian relief is threatened not only by piracy, but also by the escalating violence on land. Southern Somalia presents one of the most dangerous environments in the world to deliver aid, with thirty five humanitarian relief workers killed in 2008 alone. Humanitarian efforts have been further endangered by a local tendency to conflate the relief effort with unpopular international counter terror operations and support to the TFG [transitional federal government] (Bruton, 2010: 18).
This is quoted at length because it describes the foundation for a normal humanitarian operation that is also entangled with strategic concerns. These are usually one and the same goal. Humanitarian crises are a regular part of life, and intervention targets are not chosen randomly. It also strongly implies that the first intervention of 1992-1994 was a failure.
The problem that the Americans faced was, once the early successes of the purely humanitarian phase were completed, how to disengage from the country without leaving a divided society. Of course, those divisions were no concern of the west in the first place. The humanitarian intervention could not be separated from nation building, which meant that the early success in feeding thousands in Mogadishu was only a victory in a minor skirmish. The long term outlook was grim absent the total, long-term dedication of the US. This was not forthcoming, nor should it have been. The US itself has no essential civic identity or national identity. It is an oligarchic, imperial entity seeking to subjugate smaller states for purely economic goals. It is the successor to the British empire and thus, has no authority to decide which governments are to rule and which are to be fought.
Thus, what was billed as a strictly humanitarian mission designed to provide material alleviation of a war torn population ended up part of the global war on anti-American movements in Africa and, amounting to the same thing, the fight for planetary free trade. Outside of tenured professors, no one doubted this was the goal all along. In Foreign Affairs, one sweeping conclusion is worth mentioning:
Richard Haass, a special assistant for national security affairs to President Bush, distinguishes between humanitarian interventions, which are intent on ‘providing protection and other basic needs,’ and much more complex endeavors, such as nation-building, which envision ‘recasting the institutions of the society.’ He suggests that the Somalia mission widened to include nation-building because ‘policymakers got ambitious’ (Clarke and Herbst, 1996).
This was and is the crux of the matter. The process was to use humanitarianism as PR to justify imperial intervention more broadly. Once on the ground, the actual purpose of the mission could be revealed. “Providing basic needs” suggests that they will still be provided for once the intervening power is gone. This suggests a broader “nation-building” agenda. The failure was in the nature of this fairly obscure situation, its strategic importance and the suspicion locals had for the UN.
The methods employed in the first intervention of 1992 are basic to most adventures of this type. The first approach is contact between the state in Somalia and the US. Since there was no state, the intervening power has to “bet” on a faction or coalition to support. Of course, the faction supported almost always has already made a deal with the imperial center.
Second, regional coordination is important with the US by itself, then opened to a multilateral coalition of willing donor states. However in the Somalia case, no coalition was sufficient to repel the massively violent clan wars that drove the US out in 1995. The Ethiopian intervention alone saved the country from yet another humanitarian disaster. This suggests that regional solutions might be the only option. No foreign state sought to occupy the US during its Civil War, and the case is similar abroad. Only regional hegemons have the legitimacy, men and competence to intervene in severe cases.
There is no right, ability, force or political will among donor states to impose a new “nation” in the name of abstract humanitarianism. Reconciliation can be a difficult process, especially when one tribe takes its vengeance on another with American support. The level of administrative detail involved in “humanitarian intervention” is not realistic. Political abstractions from post-modern Europe are not appropriate for Somalia, and probably not appropriate for Europe either (Hurwitz and Huang, 2008: 7-12).
James Swan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs stated at Ohio State in April of 2007 that “We do not believe that the Council of Islamic Courts should be reconstituted as a political entity. . .” With statements like this, the US has gone beyond humanitarianism and entered into an imperialism. This implies that Islamic groups are forbidden to build institutions. They are permitted to do this in Sweden or London, but Somalia is out of the question. From this, local cynicism might be well placed (Swan, 2007).
Swan also stated in the same message:
To reach overseas audiences, particularly in the Horn of Africa, the State Department Bureau of African Affairs Public Diplomacy office has been working in concert with U.S. embassies overseas to execute a coordinated media plan. Echoing the three primary messages, U.S. ambassadors· in Nairobi, Ethiopia, and Djibouti lave participated in a series of press conferences· and media interviews to provide up-to-date intonation on U.S. policy and humanitarian assistance efforts in Somalia. Audiences include international media, the Somali people; the Somali diaspora in the Horn, sub-region and the Middle East; foreign government and military officials; Muslim communities globally; and donor partners (Swan, 2007).
When humanitarian missions are considered, the public is shown pictures of starving babies. What control over the media has to do with anything is a matter for detailed analysis as to what these “missions” are. For a country claiming a “free press,” they are anxious to control information abroad. Of course, no one has a free press, it is either state run or run by oligarchic corporations with reporters trained in universities without specialization in a specific field. They are never to be trusted.
How few bothered to discuss the control over information implied in the above imperial decree. A “coordinated media campaign” means the alliance of state and private capital to promote an agenda. If the press is a part of this, then it can hardly be expected to report on it. Even more, very few people care about Somalia – even many Somalis – so the US felt free to do what it pleased.
The intervention was multi-jurisdictional, which means that turf wars among the intervening forces are almost inevitable. While under the broad jurisdiction of the State Department, to what extent this is a set of rival bureaucrats taking credit for the work of others is already built into the mission itself. Rivalries between military, local and civilian power was also a matter of course and must be mentioned for the failure of the mission (Kapteijns, 2013:141-145).
Political rebirth means little without a functional economy. An economy cannot function without a strong state. Infrastructure needs to be built, often from scratch within states where war has destroyed communication and trade. This includes education, fresh water, health care and basic law. It also includes the resettlement of refugees from neighboring states. Making matters worse, the drought of 2005 killed off most of the crop for that year.
The American intervention also sought an African army with men primarily from Uganda, to keep the factions apart after the US had disengaged. This operation is to fashion a local force strong enough to resist any military operation against the fragile central government. “Warlordism” is an emotional word describing the radical decentralization of military power and the privation of military forces. Ironically, mercenaries did the bulk of the work in Africa and elsewhere for the US.
This rule of local clan-militas, at the time, was widely seen as the cause of the broader breakdown of the society. Clan-based warlords were the economic elite of the country. Their hegemony dominated transportation and credit. Hence, the UN could either cooperate with them in the creation of a national economy, or disarm them. Given the situation, neither would have worked.
Relative to terrorism, regional hegemonies with African armies and elites are the long term goals. These are meant to be able to do at least two things: first, to keep the peace and maintain a force that can deal with well armed groups and second, to maintain a free transportation system for food distribution. The hidden third entity is to permit American capital to do as it pleases within its borders with few taxes or other irritants.
Instead, the Ethiopian army invaded the country in 2006 and occupied the capital, acting as a de facto peacekeeping mission. This was necessary to avoid a total collapse of the country, which was seen as imminent (Bruton, 2010: 8). That Somalia was at one time part of the Ethiopian empire is not irrelevant here.
K.M. Medani argues that the Americans imposed a prohibition on the existence of informal credit groups – almost micro-lenders at the local level – as being harmful. They claimed, without evidence, that they were the source of warlordism and clan violence. However, these are essential to the everyday functioning of an economy rarely recorded by government auditors. They were shut down, or at least that was the claim. This provides a more serious glimpse into what these missions really are (Medani, 2002: 4-5).
The truth is that informal, local sources of credit had to be destroyed so it could be monopolized by western banks. Local economies had to be destroyed, leading to the failure of the mission. Slowly, the diligent researcher, of which there are exactly three, can unveil the purpose of these missions. Usury is forbidden in Islamic law, which is not the most irrelevant thing to note. Thus, the mission here was to remove the prohibition of usury, destroy Islamic-based sources of credit, and impose the western banking system on the country. This is what the pictures of starving babies are meant to disguise.
Medani emphasizes that the Somali economy is largely based on these credit bodies and hence, everyone, for good or ill, can make use of them. These are directly in competition with imperial banks. Ending these local societies was a huge mistake since it ended up giving irresponsible militias more recruits. It strangled the nascent recovery economy.
The halawwat system (the local name for these associations) was created when the military government of Gen. Barre fell, starting the civil war that has still not been totally defeated. In destroying it, nothing was gained (Medani, 2002: 6). Furthermore, there is no real evidence that these associations are involved in clan violence, though they are clan based. This is an important example of how ignorance can destroy a humanitarian mission. It is also suggestive of a financial cause of the whole matter.
Two crucial dangers for this mission were in the very nature of Somalian society. Ethnic and clan separatism is a fact of life and cannot be “intervened” away. In the MV Hohne’s article, the claim is that the local tribes have little in common and see one another as foreign. One, the Issaq, is very oriented to Great Britain and has adopted many English mannerisms. The other major one, the Dhulbahante, is extremely anti-English and saw the Issaq as exceptionally collaborationist and even profiting from the older British rule. These two should have been permitted to maintain their own governments, as they did prior to the American involvement (Hohne, 2002: 398ff). In reality, this really means that the British cut the Issaq in on oil and gas trading and thus, they became very “British.”
The Dhulbahante tend to support Siyad Barre, the former military leader of the country, due to ethnic affiliation. Indeed, his was the last stable government in the country’s history. Since the US banned Barre’s movement and his own involvement in politics, an unnecessary schism opened with this large tribal organization now without representation (ibid). How banning his party supports democracy is known only to a few.
Somaliland was the more stable homeland of the Issaq. Writers like Pham argue that this country, the subject of an Dhulbahante attack, is an excellent example of successful development. It is secular, fairly stable and growing. Islamic extremists and others see it as a threat. Puntland is the coastal home for the Dhulbahante. Pham argues that there will be no centralization unless these two nations agree. Of course, there could just be two nations.
Further, the obvious question as to what is so sacred about a “Somalia” where there is no foundation for agreement goes unanswered, but strongly implied. Somalian growth can only be based on a federation of clans, at best. Quite possibly , a series of smaller states with open trading regimes might even be more realistic, but that is not on the agenda (Pham, 2012: 15-22). Finance capital requires centralization.
Ethiopia cannot be left out of any paper on Somalia. Once an empire never having faced colonialism, Ethiopia has been immersed in poverty and violence since at least the fall of the monarchy. Since the coup d’etat of the Leftist “Derg” (or “Soviet” in the Ge’ez language) from 1974 to 1991, Ethiopia became irrelevant to African politics. The wars with separatist Somalia and Eritrea has drained the manpower and money from this country unable to govern even itself. After the American failure, she was called on again to reclaim her former possession whose independence had failed (UNCTAD, 2012).
The war with Eritrea was momentous because that group’s formal independence would sever Ethiopia from the Red Sea and the Gulf. In fact, the victory of this movement further reduced the significance of this former Semitic empire. Ethiopia is now landlocked, making her isolated to the interior of east Africa by her two former possessions. It is clear that this coastline facing the Gulf of Aden is one of the most strategic on the globe. Hence, Ethiopia’s action in reclaiming her former lands was predictable. Unfortunately, it failed in the long term, but it did serve to stabilize matters for a time (Höhne, 2006: ch 1).
Therefore, ethnicity is critical. Either reconciliation should be the goal, or more realistically, the two groups should go their separate ways. The Dhulbahante movement has, after the failure of the US intervention, made war on the new government and contributed to its instability. The Dhulbahante claim this is mere retaliation for previous atrocities. The ignorance of this was probably the main cause of the failure of the mission and the need for Ethiopian occupation (Pham 2012: 20-25).
Both Medani and Pham are in general agreement. Traditional administrations are the essence of reconstruction and can be accomplished with a minimum of foreign assistance. If Ethiopia can rule the country effectively, this might also be an option. Again, this is not part of the US mission nor is it implied in the concept of “humanitarianism.” Somalia cannot be unified since there is no racial basis for it.
Recovery should be the business of local organization granted a modicum of peace from local hegemons. American military incompetence made a mockery of the concept of “humanitarian intervention” for some time. One can add the senseless attack on Serbia or the involvement of the CIA in Libya and Egypt to round out the comedy of errors. All of these led to disaster and all were publicly justified on humanitarian grounds. At a maximum, the foreign role might be mediation alone, though again, this must be regional, not imperial. Peace is a goal, unity is not. Either way, imperial hegemons have no say. Imperial states create war, they do not stop it.
Clarke and Herbst (1996) argue that the mission was a failure for several reasons. First, there was no firm sense of mission. Humanitarian crisis intervention is a far cry from nation building. Second, there was no attempt to disarm local warlords, though, in fairness, this would have been a bloody affair. As nation building and wars against Islamic fundamentalism took over motivation from the earlier humanitarian purpose, American financial commitments were not sufficient. Finally, there was no clear vision for how the parties would begin to cooperate.
They conclude their analysis: “Somalia, as more and more are now recognizing, was not an abject failure” (Clarke and Herbst, 1996). Part of this was due to a lack of a defined goal. As mentioned, the distinction between humanitarian aid and building a state are radically different. In Somalia, the lack of government meant the lack of law. The lack of law meant the poor performance of an economy where uncertainty was paramount. The US wanted peace enforced quickly, concluded by a quick exit. The UN, on the other hand, spoke of longer-term commitments dedicated to rebuilding. The US had neither the will nor the money for such an undertaking (Kapteijns, 2013: 222).
That academics take “humanitarian intervention” seriously is a testament to the failure of the American education system. Either that, or they are just open propagandists of imperial power. Only in academia is being on the payroll of a powerful organization seen as something to brag about.
Imperial states “intervene” for its economic interests, or more accurately, the interests of the capital that controls it. That such blatant propaganda as “humanitarianism” is used for failed war after failed war – often using the same images of suffering – shows what “postmodern democracy” truly is.
The worst part is how the very concept, once defined in any detail, quickly denies its humanitarianism and moves into various rhetorical veils for colonial occupation. Propaganda is delivered to populations in the form of starving, non-white babies. White guilt is used by the press to subliminally make viewers thing this is their fault. As the banks financing the mission foreclose on their homes, they are told they are “privileged” and that their money must go to serve those they have “wronged.”
The swaggering, arrogant American military man, told he is the very vanguard of masculinity, freedom and wonder, believe themselves to be bound by no rules whatsoever. When they fail, as they almost always do, they quickly blame someone else. Foreign intervention, “rules of engagement,” their commanding officer or “the media” are used as scapegoats to justify their bloated budgets and egos. Their failures are what make the American version of imperialism so different from the British.
The broader point is that the intervening power cannot do anything but respect local institutions, since these are the cells of rebirth. Yet, colonialism’s very purpose is to destroy these. When these are violated out of hand, it changes a humanitarian mission into an imperial one, though these have never been distinct. This might also corroborate Somali suspicions that the engagement is about American money, not local growth. No government will send thousands of men and billions of dollars borrowed from elsewhere to ensure clean water to tribesmen who would slit their throats in a heartbeat.
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Höhne, MV 2006 Political Identity, Emerging State Structures and Conflict in Northern Somalia. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 44(3) pgs 397-414
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