Sunday, July 13, 2003

Clear Liberian plan avoids Somalia pitfalls

By Nathaniel R. Jones
Guest columnist

With events in Iraq and Liberia dominating today's conversation, there have been increased references to America's interventionist role in Somalia in 1993.

The casual comparison of Somalia and Liberia reveals a gap in the knowledge of the history of those and other countries that make up the vast continent of Africa. Most perplexing is the comment attributed to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who doubted "that there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia's affairs." What comes to my mind is the instruction from the philosopher, George Santanya, who reminds us that "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

Secretary Rumsfeld's statement, and the comments of many others who link Somalia and Liberia, prompt me to speak out on behalf of a considerable number of Americans of African descent who either claim ties to Liberia, or at least knowledge of the historic relationship between America and Liberia. I have kin who went to Liberia in the 1920s to work as missionaries under the auspices of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention. One relative served as president of Monrovia College in Liberia. I need not discuss the numerous commercial ventures that involve American companies and Liberia's raw materials, as well as the strategic aid given to the United States during the Cold War. African Americans know that Liberia is not a recent discovery and that the United States has a compelling interest in Liberia.

As the United States struggles with the dilemma created by the calls for intervention in Liberia, we must remember the lessons taught by our experience in Somalia. The lessons are very simple: (1) policy makers and purveyors of news that shape policy should immerse themselves in the history and the nuances of Africa; (2) when the United States chooses to intervene in a country, whether militarily or for peace-keeping purposes, it would do well to be a part of a multi-national force; and (3) Americans need to be prepared to absorb the pain associated with nation-building. When leaders take the nation to that point of intervention, the citizens must be told candidly the price in treasure and lives that may have to be paid. We ignored that reality in Somalia.

The chaotic conditions in Somalia in 1993 led the United Nations, backed by the United States, to insert military forces. Between June and October, there were an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 Somalia casualties as fights flared between rival factions. The judicial and law enforcement systems were wrecked. In the middle of that national and international trauma, Ambassador Richard Schifter, national security assistant to President Clinton, invited me to serve as the coordinator for the judicial program in Somalia. He explained in a Sept. 20, 1993 letter, "After President Siad Barre was overthrown, it was not possible to put a new government together. The country's social fabric then disintegrated ... farmers, in fear of bandits, fled the countryside. The bandits also prevented the delivery of food donated by relief organizations. This ultimately led to mass starvation."

I accepted the invitation to serve. My specific function was to be, as stated by Ambassador Schifter in an Oct. 4, 1993 letter, "Special Advisor on Judicial Affairs to the UN Special Envoy," and make recommendations to the Envoy with respect to: (1) overall policy, (2) staffing, and (3) the allocation and expenditure of funds. This initiative came about in the face of mounting Congressional criticism at the unproductive efforts of the United States and United Nations to capture General Mohammed Farah Aidid. Instead, there was to be a focus on building a political structure without General Aidid.

Then came the raid into south Mogadishu by U.S. Army Rangers in an effort to root out deputies to the hunted General Aidid. A firefight occurred in which 18 Americans were killed and 75 were wounded. I was advised by Ambassador Schifter and the UN that plans for reconstruction of the judicial system were suspended. There had been a dramatic falloff in Congressional support that reflected public upset at the sight of bodies of American troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. America withdrew its forces. Americans were not prepared to absorb the pain associated with nation-building

In this present crisis, we once again are witnessing early signs of public discomfort over the repeated loss of American lives in post-war Iraq. With increasing calls for the United States to send military reinforcements to Iraq and peacekeepers to Liberia, there may be a tendency to confuse the two situations. There is a difference.

The distinction lies within the rationales of the United States for entering Iraq to effect a regime change on one hand, and for entering Liberia to restore peace and provide humanitarian aid, on the other. For many, that makes all of the difference. In each situation, however, there must be a clear understanding of the costs involved - human and financial. Such clarification is required to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past - one of which is to do a minuet while the people of Liberia die from violence and starvation.


The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones retired as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit after 22 years. He served as a member of the International Judicial Relations Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference; was an international trial observer and an elections observer in South Africa; investigated the independence of the Kenyan judiciary; and studied the court systems in a number of African countries.

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