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.

No comments: