What Exactly is Going on in Somalia?

| Tue Jan. 16, 2007 3:38 PM EST

A nice article by Matt Yglesias released today over at the American Prospect online, mainly hinging on the fact that with this Somalia business, "nobody can quite explain what it is we've accomplished, what we hoped to accomplish, or what we think we may in the future accomplish by doing this."

To review, news reports began reaching the United States around Christmas time indicating that Ethiopia had invaded its neighbor, possibly acting on its own and possibly acting at the behest of Somalia's extremely weak and internationally-"supported" government, in an attempt to break the power of Islamist rebels. "Rebels" was the term used by most of the media, but in truth, as Matt explains, the Islamic Courts Movement ruled much of the country and was the first non-warlord form of governance in Somalia since the last legitimate government fell apart over a decade ago.

Then reports came in saying that the United States had launched a rocket attack on Somalia in an attempt to kill a handful of suspected al Qaeda operatives. These reports were quickly followed by the news that no al Qaeda terrorists were actually killed and that the United States had assisted Ethiopia with ground troops.

Yglesias ponders the role of Lieutenant General William Boykin in this confusing turn of events. Boykin is a "mastermind of secret American special forces operations against suspected terrorists" and a Christian zealot, and was strangely fired shortly after the Somalia situation intensified. But that sort of speculation could be completely off-base: the real intrigue here is that no one has any idea what's going on. Here's Matt:

Boykin is, in short, exactly the sort of person who might think a Christmas-week invasion of Muslim Somalia by Christian Ethiopia backed by American special forces was a peachy idea whether or not it actually made sense on normal counterterrorism grounds. Maybe he just ordered this up while everyone was on vacation, only to get sacked as soon as his boss got back to work at the Pentagon. Or maybe Bush and his whole administration were on board after all. Nobody real knows.
And more to the point, nobody in Washington is talking about what we've actually done and why. Troops sent into Somalia to follow up on the AC-130 strike told The Washington Post that "no one can confirm a high-value target" was present at the scene. They did, however, find documents indicating that Aden Ayrow, not an al-Qaeda figure but a commander in the ICU military, had been there. The strike looks, in short, as if it was simply undertaken in support of Ethiopia's military adventure. Mogadishu is descending into chaos, with gun battles on the streets and predictable popular anger at the foreign invaders, their foreign backers (i.e., us), and their domestic puppets in the de jure government. An untold number of people have already been killed in the fighting, and many more are likely to die if Somalia devolves again into civil war, a situation that will only make the country more hospitable to al-Qaeda.

The emphasis above is mine. The fact that, in the end, this may be a case of nothing more than getting a regional power to do our dirty work dovetails nicely with something Peter Beinart wrote in TIME recently:

The Bush Administration has begun cribbing from a very different doctrine: Richard Nixon's. The Nixon Doctrine is the foreign policy equivalent of outsourcing. Nixon unveiled it in 1969 to a nation wearied by Vietnam. No longer would Americans man the front lines against global communism. In Vietnam, we would turn the fighting over to Saigon. In the Persian Gulf, we would build up Iran to check Soviet expansion. America would no longer be a global cop; it would be a global benefactor, quartermaster and coach--helping allies contain communism on their own.
Now President Bush is trying something similar. For much of 2006, Administration officials fretted about Somalia, where some of the ruling Islamists had terrorist ties. Next door in Djibouti, America stations around 1,000 troops. But instead of sending them in, we turned to Ethiopia, Somalia's neighbor and longtime rival. When the Ethiopian military rolled into Mogadishu and sent the Islamists fleeing last week, the Bush Administration kept a low profile, applauding the invasion and thanking its lucky stars that it was Ethiopia that launched it, not us.
It's becoming a familiar story. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has handed over much of the anti-Taliban fight to NATO. On North Korea, America works largely through China. On Darfur, we have banked on peacekeepers from the African Union. This past summer the Bush Administration briefly put Israel in charge of our Iran policy, supporting Jerusalem's war against Hizballah in hopes of crippling Tehran's powerful Lebanese ally.

The problem is obvious, and it's the same as when Nixon was in power. With Nixon's support of Iran, Beinart notes, the Shah got heady and cracked down on all political dissent. With time, he established a dictatorship that routinely violated human rights. Following him, of course, were the ayatollahs and the Iran we currently deal with today. In short, your proxies can do any old thing after you've gifted them support, arms, and legitimacy, and are not trustworthy agents of a properly conducted foreign policy.

By the way, this is not helping our image abroad. The African media is already calling Somalia "Bush's Fourth War Against the Muslims."