Thursday, 27 November 2008

US intervention in Somalia: remembering the disastrous 1992 invasion

In analysing current media coverage of the crisis in Somalia, it's
useful to compare it with press reporting of the disastrous US invasion
of 1992. The US intervention in Somalia, soon after the ending of the
1991 massacres in the Gulf, is best seen as an attempt to legitimise US
militarism and its moves to overturn the principles of the sovereign
equality of states and non-interference (the basis of international law
since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, reaffirmed in the United Nations
Charter of 1945) under the guise of 'peacekeeping' and

During the Cold War, the authoritarian regime of Mohamed Siad Barre was
a close ally of the United States and the military facility at Berbera
became a significant base for America's Rapid Deployment Force. From the
late 1970s until early 1991, the US spent more than $509 million
annually supplying arms to Somalia in return for the use of its military
bases. In addition, the country became a dumping ground for excess food
produced by US farmers which ended up undermining the domestic economy,
encouraging political corruption and intensifying clan divisions. Once
the Barre dictatorship collapsed in January 1991, chaos and famine
inevitably followed, at least according to dominant voices in the
Western media. And in December 1992, with only weeks left in his term as
President, George Bush ordered 25,000 troops into Somalia as part of
Operation Restore Hope to ensure food aid reached the famine victims.

Yet Philip Hammond's detailed quantitative analysis of coverage by the
Guardian, Independent, Times and Mail (Framing post-Cold War conflicts:
The media and international intervention, Manchester University Press
2007) shows that the famine had peaked in August 1992 and was actually
waning when the marines were sent in November. Most articles lacked
historical background and context: relatively few addressed the history
of foreign involvement in the country despite its relevance to the
crisis. The most frequently cited sources were US officials and military
personnel, appearing in 42.7 per cent of coverage. 'While criticism was
quite extensive, it was limited in its substance. Few articles
criticised the conduct of the US military and any broader questioning of
the rationale for intervention was also limited. Instead, the need for
international action of some sort tended to be assumed.'

For instance, The Times, in its 1 December editorial headlined 'Shoot to
feed', acknowledged that the mission represented a 'radical departure in
international law' but continued: 'If only force will save Somali lives,
force should be used.' On the same day, the Independent's editorial,
titled 'A benign imperium', argued that the intervention would have to
be prolonged and 'on a scale grand enough to signal that a fundamental
change in international attitudes and law has occurred'. The Guardian,
in contrast, was more cautious describing it as a 'complex mission'
deserving 'a qualified welcome'.

The debate over the supposed power of the mainstream media to influence
the direction of foreign/military policy (which became known as the 'CNN
effect') revived during the Somali mission. It became particularly
prominent after 4 October 1993 when 18 US soldiers were killed in a
battle with the militia of a rebel warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and
some were dragged through the streets of the capital, Mogadishu, under
the glare of the international media. Three days later President
Clinton announced that all US troops would leave Somalia by March 1994
while the hunt for Aidid was abandoned. According to Hammond, the images
of the dead US troops are best seen as 'speeding up the decision [to
quit Somalia] rather than causing it'. On 5 October 1993, the
Independent reported that President Clinton was 'already under intense
pressure to pull American troops out' while The Times, on October 4,
stressed that he had 'already begun to make clear that he intended to

Thus the US intervention in Somalia (1992-4) is best seen as a defining
moment for the post-Cold War international order and the attempts to
redefine US militarism as an ethical project. Yet these aspects
significantly received virtually no critical discussion in the
mainstream press at the time.

Somalia: the great, hidden US policy failure since 9/11

Somalia is one of the great unrecognised US policy failures since 9/11,
according to Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia scholar at Davidson College
in North Carolina. He is quoted in an excellent piece on the 'hidden
Somali war' by Paul Salopek, in the Chicago Tribune.

It is a covert war in which the CIA has recruited gangs of warlords to
hunt down and kidnap Islamic militants and secretly imprison them
offshore aboard US warships, Salopek reports. 'It is a standoff war in
which the Pentagon lobs million-dollar cruise missiles into a
famine-haunted African wasteland the size of Texas, hoping to kill lone
terror suspects who might be dozing in candlelit huts. (The raids'
success or failure is almost impossible to verify.)'

Buried in the copy is a reference to 'what is probably the worst
humanitarian crisis in the world'. But Salopek does place the current
crisis in the context of the disastrous Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in
December 2006 - backed by the US.

He reports: 'The homegrown Islamic radicals who controlled most of
central and southern Somalia in mid-2006 certainly were no angels. They
shuttered Mogadishu's cinemas, demanded that Somali men grow beards and,
according to the US State Department, provided refuge to some 30 local
and international jihadists associated with Al Qaeda.

'But the Islamic Courts Union's turbaned militiamen had actually
defeated Somalia's hated warlords. And their enforcement of Islamic
religious laws, while unpopular among many Somalis, made Mogadishu safe
to walk in for the first time in a generation.'

Four years ago, the CIA created a mercenary force called the Alliance
for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in Somalia by
bringing together some of the world's most violent, wily and unreliable
clan militias - including gangs that had attacked US forces in the early
1990s - to confront the rising tide of Islamic militancy in Somalia's
capital, Mogadishu. And as the anarchy spread, the Somalis on the CIA
payroll engaged grim tit-for-tat exchanges of kidnappings and
assassinations with extremists.

Salopek reports on continuing US military intervention in Somalia. 'A US
missile strike in May killed the commander, Aden Hashi Ayro, enraging
Islamist militants who have since vowed to kidnap and kill any outsider
found in the country.'

All this makes it extremely difficult for Western journalists to operate
in Somalia. The bravery of those who remain must be acknowledged -
particularly as now the corporate media cover the inquest into the death
of BBC journalist Kate Peyton, fatally shot within hours of arriving in
Mogadishu in February 2005. It appears that Peyton feared that turning
down the assignment would jeopardise her career opportunities at the
BBC. While not criticising the BBC, the coroner is to recommend that
managers remind staff that refusing dangerous assignments will have no
adverse affect on their future at the corporation.

* See:,0,47

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Silence over Somali humanitarian crisis persists

And still the silence over the Somali humanitarian crisis persists in the UK corporate media. Most of the focus remains on the pirates and their threats to global financial interests. Calls for military action to rid them from the seas around the Horn of Africa are growing while little attention is given to the political origins of Somalia's current crisis: the disastrous Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 – backed by the United States.

On Saturday, 22 November, Catherine Phelp in The Times, concentrates on the pirates but reports that the Western-backed government headed by Abdullah Yusuf is also deeply involved in piracy. Phelp does mention, en passant, that the Ethiopian troops were backed by the US in 2006 – but this draws no critical comment. US military intervention in countries across the globe is unproblematic and not worthy of any outrage in The Times's worldview.

Then on Sunday, 23 November, in the Sunday Times, the narrow economic angle persists with the report concentrating on security firms spying 'new jobs on the high seas'.

No mention of the humanitarian crisis again in Colin Freeman's report, in the Daily Telegraph, of 22 November. Here the focus is on 'a lawless land where everyone wants to be a Somali pirate'. But this angle seems to be somewhat contradicted by a quote buried in the feature from a businessman: 'Most people here are disgusted by the piracy.'

James Blitz and Robert Wright, in the Financial Times of 21 November, make no mention of the humanitarian crisis and only a token, passing reference to the US support for Ethiopia's 2006 invasion. An editorial in the FT as early as 11 November had called for a UN Security Council to pass a resolution 'more explicit about the military action that can be taken by governments against the pirates' and for the international court at the Hague to bring the pirates to justice. No compassion for the millions facing starvation in Somalia.

The best coverage comes in Peter Beaumont's feature in the Observer of 23 November. He rightly comments: 'If what is happening is a disaster, it is a disaster hardly noticed by the world.' He continues: 'While the world has focused on the rampant piracy problem afflicting the Gulf of Aden, which saw yet another tanker held for ransom last week, the seizing of ships is only a symptom of a much more terrifying malaise. What it points to is the wholesale failure of a state and the international community's abandonment of the Somalia problem except where it affects its interests in terms of shipping trade and the "war on terror" for the West and on a more local scale for the regional interests of Ethiopia and Eritrea.'

There is also a reference to Somalia's appalling humanitarian crisis – though it comes buried in par 12: 'Forty-three per cent of the country is in dire need of humanitarian assistance, about 3.2 million people at the last count. There are 1.3 million internally displaced, 100,000 of them fleeing the fighting in Mogadishu alone since the beginning of September. Inflation is running at 1,600 per cent. One in six children in southern and central Somalia is acutely malnourished.'

But in a separate timeline on Somalia's recent history, the representation of America's imperial aggression in the country, is strangely softened. The US is said to have merely 'encouraged' Ethiopia's invasion of 2006. It did, in fact, do far more. For instance, the CIA had earlier backed with weapons and intelligence the grouping of warlords, known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism. This was determined to oust the Islamic Courts Union which, most commentators accept, had managed to bring some desperately needed stability to the country. And then during the actual invasion and for months afterwards, US jets and gunships pounded targets in support of the Ethiopian invaders. How many civilians died in these attacks we will never know.