Somali Piracy and American Foreign Policy

With the explosion of Somali piracy, America is reaping what it has sown. In many ways, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for the emergence of high-seas crime threatening to disrupt important lanes of trade.

America’s support for a violent strongman during Somalia’s formative post-colonial years hindered the development of stable political institutions and severely complicated its capacity for effective self-rule and sustainable growth.

The country’s markets are also victims of foreign meddling, fatalities of the backhanded ‘charity’ which has made Western actors—and especially the U.S.—distrusted throughout the Third World. Rendered economically impotent through the misapplication of aid and assistance by the U.S. government and various NGOs, it is no surprise that Somalis have turned to brigandry for sustenance.

These actions we are now witnessing are not crimes of maliciousness or greed, but of desperation. They are sins of last resort.

* * *

Modern Somalia was formed from the 1960 union of two European colonies, one British, the other Italian. What began as an exercise in constitutional democracy rapidly devolved into a dictatorship under the command of Maxamed Siyaad Barre.

Although Barre originally aligned his nation with the USSR, the relationship soured in 1977-79. Moscow eventually abandoned Somalia altogether, throwing its weight behind neighboring Ethiopia in a conflict over the disputed Ogaden region.

Reeling from the Soviet betrayal, Barre appealed to America for military assistance in the fighting of foreign wars and the suppression of internal resistance. In typical fashion, President Carter waffled, green lighting the shipment of munitions but then changing his mind at the critical moment.

Deprived of a sympathetic great power, Somali forces were run out of the Ogaden by a combined Ethiopian-Cuban-Soviet task force. Barre’s regime teetered on the verge of collapse.

However, under the consummate Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan, America suddenly renewed its interest in the Horn of Africa. Henry Kissinger met personally with Barre, and in 1981 the U.S. began supplying the dictator with arms and some $100 million per year.

In exchange, America was granted control of the deep-sea port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. Berbera was deemed of considerable strategic significance in countering Soviet designs in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It had the added advantage of overlooking a key oil route.

Fortifying his rule with American weapons and treasure, Barre managed to survive the Cold War. His nation was not so lucky.

* * *

Like most Third World pawns, Barre’s regime was fundamentally unsound, necessitating ever greater levels of financial aid. At the conclusion of the Cold War, American politicians downgraded Somalia’s importance, deeming it an unnecessary expenditure.

As American patronage waned, unrest turned to full-fledged civil war. Barre was ousted in 1991 and died of heart attack in 1995. In the intervening years, America attempted a ‘humanitarian invasion’ of Somalia. It ended in the humiliation of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ fiasco. By then, Somalia was overwhelmed by the anarchy with which its name is now synonymous.

Despite America’s loud talk of championing democracy and human rights abroad, we encouraged neither during Somalia’s crucial post-colonial years. Although our sponsorship of Barre afforded opportunities aplenty for promoting responsible governance, we instead enabled a tradition of illiberal rule-by-force.

Somalia entered the 1990s with an economy as nonexistent as its political institutions. This too was the fault of American and Western planners.

Over the years, its markets atrophied as its people grew accustomed to the foreign dole. Somalia’s agricultural industry was undermined by shipment after shipment of crops, which were sold at exaggeratedly low prices to the detriment of local farmers, who simply could not compete.

Without an organic market of indigenous producers, Somalis were forced into a cycle of dependency. How ironic: In the hopes of eliminating starvation in Somalia, we in fact eliminated the country’s ability to feed itself, making starvation all but inevitable.

The situation was exacerbated by a legacy of man-made famines and refugee crises. These humanitarian emergencies were engineered by Barre with the tacit approval of the United States, which steadily stoked a regime driving its country into the ground.

Barre was notorious for hording food aid, lavishing it upon an ever-tightening circle of ethnic supporters and withholding it from the nation’s other clans, which were increasingly at odds with his regime.

With the cessation of large scale food aid from the U.S., Barre was robbed of a major power-preserving tool. With next to no support among the populace, he was forced from office.

However, Somali clans continue to extract significant food aid from foreign agents, especially NGOs like Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere and Save the Children. Food in Somalia is explicitly political, used to reward allegiance and punish resistance. In this way, Westerners are fueling a conflict that might already have run its course without outside interference.

* * *

Earlier on, we said that America is reaping what it has sown. That statement stands, insomuch as piracy is a symptom of a land made lawless by the lasting damage of cruel, U.S. supported regime that seeded dysfunction and violence.

However, seen in another light, America is reaping what it did not sow. For more than a decade, Barre existed at the mercy of U.S. funding. He depended upon our calculated ‘kindness’ in every way.

We could have used such total reliance to seed democracy; to facilitate the development of sustainable economic structures and stable political institutions; to nourish Somali agriculture, build its industrial capacity, and protect its waters from the overpowering foreign fishing operations which have led many sea-going Somalis to piracy.

Instead, we allowed Barre to brutalize his people, never exerting the slightest pressure for reform.

Instead, we paralyzed an already weak market, giving hand-outs rather than hand-ups, and extinguishing local farming through a disastrous IMF structural adjustment program.

Americans are in a frenzy over the advance of Somali thugs upon American merchants. What they do not understand is our country’s role in undoing the very fabric of Somali society—in the creation of a power vacuum that allows criminals free rein—over the past twenty-five years.

Somalia is a case study in unintended consequences, in good intentions gone awry, in the bad karma of realpolitik.

America must learn to be highly conscientious of who it aids and how it aids them. It must accept that actions have consequences, that we are not immune to the forces of reaction. It must recognize that short-term Machiavellian tactics are no substitute for long-term developmental strategies. The latter will help produce a more just and equitable world; the former will surely come back to haunt.

REBECCA MACAUX and PHILIP PRIMEAU blog at Who-Whom and can be reached at: primeau.pr@gmail.com

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