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Time for Some Hard Choices in Somalia

Column by Matthew H. Hersch
Executive Editor

I still get a little misty-eyed when I think about it: hundreds of Marines, thousands of reporters, a Frenchman here and there, all traveling thousands of miles to stuff oatmeal down the throats of millions of starving refugees. But now that we put our foot in the proverbial door, its time for to make hard choices about our relief efforts in Somalia.

Our relief program, if you ask the folks in charge, is going well. UN forces are in place in major cities, local gunman have been suppressed, and food is starting to go out to the rural hungry, but problems still abound. The country still has no government, no police, no security, no order. Cities and villages lacking a heavy troop presence are still torn by looting and clan violence, and Somalis are still largely being bullied by the same cast of well-armed, charismatic yokels that started all the trouble in the first place.

Call them generals, gangsters, or patriots, it is these yokels who are the real problem with Somalia. The country has enough food to feed itself, but the lack of social order, coupled with the megalomaniacal designs of local warlords, prevents food from being distributed to the powerless masses. The masses, meanwhile, motivated primarily by clan affiliations, are economically and politically powerless. And despite U.N. disarmament efforts, the gun still reigns as the supreme and plentiful instrument of power.

To bored political science majors like me, Somalia seems very much like Medieval Europe, only worse. The economy is depressed, local warlords dominate, and the central government is practically nonexistent. People live in near starvation, committed to their families and no one else. The warlords, though, while materially powerful, command no little popular support outside of the gangs of soldiers they pay with their plunder. Unable to organize effectively with their counterparts, they spend more time fighting each other than helping their poorer countrymen.

Europe took about a thousand years to go from this kind of feudal anarchy to what it is today. That change, I'm afraid, was only made possible by enormous economic prosperity and a period of relative peace between 1000 and 1300 A.D.

Repairing these conditions in Somalia will be costly and time-consuming. The question we must ask ourselves is, do we want to?

If we do, then we aren't killing nearly enough people. It is the warlords that are keeping Somalia in chaos. They control the weapons, the food, and everything of value in the country. They run the gangs that rob relief workers and they are the ones who tell the snipers which Marines to shoot at. If we do not eliminate the warlords, all of our efforts will fail.

Eliminating the warlords and their weapons, though, is one measure we are currently unwilling to take. For one thing, as good guys, we hate to do nasty things. Instead, we have been trying to cajole local leaders into a accepting a diplomatic solution, a solution which is seeming more and more distant. Barring a quick fix, eliminating the warlords is Somalia's only hope.

This, after all, is what the Europeans did. After centuries of war and revolution, they managed to overthrow their warlords and replace them, first with the centralized rule of kings, and then with bonafide popular democracies. Hopefully, a provisional UN government can take the place of the kings, and a new generation of well-fed, well-adjusted Somalis can take care of the democracy part.

I don't think we would even have to do to much killing to pull this off. Warlords, like most bullies, tend to run in the face of superior forces. Sacking a few of them should have the others shaking in their boots.

We must ask ourselves, then, if we really want to commit ourselves to a program this extensive. To be honest, I'm not sure the world community is ready to jump in to an operation this idealistic and elaborate, especially in a more or less inconsequential country like Somalia.

Besides, some might correctly realize, if we leave Somalia the way it is, chances are in a thousand years it will come around on its own.