“Propaganda to Journalism” was the New York Times headline on a year-end story about mass media in former Socialist countries, without the slightest self-consciousness about how US coverage of events like the Somalia intervention exemplifies “journalism to propaganda.” Perhaps there have been equally bizarre landings in the history of the US Marines — Beirut, for instance, in July 1958, when they splashed onto a beach full of sunbathers and Coca-Cola vendors. In this latest patriotic spectacle, troops landed in camouflage uniforms and greased faces, only to find their high-tech night vision goggles rendered useless, even hazardous, by the glare of the television camera lights.
George Bush, in announcing his dispatch of tens of thousands of troops, proclaimed that US forces would be “doing God’s work.” If history holds any lessons, certainly one is to beware whenever a warlord claims divine sanction. Ronald Reagan’s blessing was more candid: “What is being done in Somalia,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “is what is needed in many places around the globe — a humanitarian velvet glove backed by a steel fist of military force.” Neither Reagan nor Bush mentioned how they had presided over the delivery of nearly half a billion dollars of military and “security” assistance to former warlord-in-charge Siad Barre. Bush sought $20 million from Congress for Barre’s regime in July 1989, just days after Somali troops massacred some 450 persons leaving a mosque.
That was then; this is now. We have paid close attention to the views of friends working in the Horn, who feel passionately that we were not seeing even half of the horror there, that something on this scale had to be tried, especially after UN negotiator Muhammad Sahnoun was fired by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in early October. For those closest to the reconciliation projects in Somalia, though, the scale is all wrong. The negotiations Sahnoun had been trying to arrange among Somali leaders — not just heads of armed factions — have been forcibly displaced by the sequence of US and UN actions. An important feature of Somalia’s experience over the past two years is the utter discredit which the UN has brought upon itself. When fighting erupted in 1990-1991, the UN, along with the US and many donor organizations, simply pulled out. Sahnoun’s credibility rested in large measure on his critical stance vis-à-vis the UN high command. There is no sign that this US intervention is anything but a reactive, short-term prescription, or that policymakers in Washington have acquired in December the perspective they so conspicuously lacked over the past two years. One indication is the continued inattention to the role of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kenya in supporting various Somali armed factions.
Beyond the question of how this intervention affects the balance of forces in Somalia and in the Horn, a major demerit is that it nourishes reliance on US military force as a substitute for local and regional initiatives for political reconstruction. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the vision this intervention suggests for the future, of US/UN troops dispatched to those hellholes that erupt in flames and anarchy — today Mogadishu, tomorrow (again) South Central Los Angeles — to impose a semblance of order necessary to maintain the larger global structures that privilege the few and impoverish the many. “God’s work” indeed.