Saturday, January 12, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. Support For Somalia -- Cold War Policy Left Despotic Ruler With American Arms

Washington Post

NAIROBI, Kenya - The U.S. Embassy in Somalia is surely one of the biggest in the world, a $35-million compound in Mogadishu featuring a nine-hole golf course, two swimming pools, volleyball courtsand a jogging track overlooking the Indian Ocean.

During the best of times in U.S.-Somali relations in the 1980s, when the United States sent more than $700 million in military and economic aid to the harsh regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, this embassy was the place for U.S. and Somali officials to meet to devise ways to counter Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa.

But last weekend, the grand architectural symbol of U.S. commitment in the region became an embarrassing point of departure for more than 250 U.S. citizens and other foreigners who clambered aboard Marine helicopters on the embassy's front lawn. From there, they were flown to safety from a savage, week-long battle - fought largely with American-made weapons - that has left more than 1,500 people dead in the streets of Mogadishu, a city of more than a half-million.

About 400 more Western refugees were evacuated to Kenya on Monday, as at least a half-dozen rebel groups bent on ending Siad Barre's 21 years of authoritarian rule were said to be closing in on the capital's airports. Siad Barre's family reportedly has also fled Mogadishu, where, according to refugees arriving here last Monday, heavy fighting continued while hundreds of bodies were left to rot in the streets.

The conflict has thus effectively neutralized the U.S. Embassy and with it, seemingly, closed a chapter on U.S. policy in Africa in which Cold War superpower competition and expedient support for despotic rulers largely dictated events throughout the region.

``It is a clear failure of American policy, and we should bear some responsibility,'' said Rep. Howard Wolpe, D-Mich., chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, in a telephone interview. ``We established a strong security-assistance relationship (with Somalia) and transferred millions in weaponry while we totally disregarded the internal policies of the regime, the human-rights violations that occurred over time. . . . Now what you are seeing is a general indifference to a disaster that we played a role in creating.''

In 1988, Congress finally put a stop to the U.S. flow of arms to Somalia, but that did not keep the Siad Barre government from using weapons already acquired to continue its campaign against rebels in the north. An estimated 50,000 civilians, as a result, have been killed over the last 3 1/2 years.

The roots of such destruction were nurtured by superpower politics in the mid-1970s when the Soviet Union established close ties with traditional Somalian rival Ethiopia after that nation's 1974 Marxist revolution. The United States subsequently strengthened relations with Somalia to blunt perceived Soviet designs on the region and to acquire a military toehold along the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean to help protect Saudia Arabia and the Persian Gulf. In return for cash and weapons, the Siad Barre government - which seized power in 1969 - allowed U.S. military access to air and sea ports, most notably the strategic port of Berbera, near the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

The regime used much of its U.S.-made military hardware to fight a war with the Soviet-supported Ethiopians over the disputed Ogaden region in 1977-78. At the same time, critics say, U.S. officials chose to ignore human-rights violations committed by the Somali regime against its own population over the years - systematic misrule, supported by U.S. money, that they say helped lead ultimately to last week's slaughter in the capital.

``I just think this is a textbook example of what happens when the U.S. extends support to another country solely for external reasons, while ignoring that country's internal problems,'' said Peter Schraeder, a political scientist at Loyola University of Chicago.

``There was never any reason to give Siad Barre all those weapons,'' Schraeder said.

While generally agreeing with this view, other analysts said the carnage in Somalia and its lessons for U.S. policy reflect, as well, a general failure on the part of Siad Barre and many other African leaders to take moral responsibility for their actions. ``You know, it's easy to blame us for all this,'' said a U.S. official here recently, ``but it's also a situation where you have another African leader who just wasted a tremendous opportunity. . . . This is a sovereign country we're talking about. They have chosen to spend the (aid) that way, to hurt people and destroy their own economy, and now they are reaping the consequences.''

In an interview last year, Siad Barre complained bitterly about the cutoff of U.S. military aid and lashed out at critics of his regime, saying ``I believe human rights is a political instrument aimed to destroy certain countries or certain governments, nothing else. . . . If the U.S. is a friend, it shouldn't cut us by the neck. . . . They have to respect what friendship means.''

In Africa, as in other parts of the world, the United States has had problems with many such regimes through the years, often choosing to lend military and economic support for strategic reasons to tyrants who show little regard for the welfare of their peoples.

``Batista of Cuba; South Vietnam; the shah of Iran; Samuel Doe in Liberia; Siad Barre - this is all part of the pattern,'' Schraeder said. In the atmosphere of Cold War diplomacy, ``the U.S. had a tendency to look upon Africa as (an arena for confronting) non-African problems.'' Now, Schraeder added, the decline of the Cold War finds ``Africa and African leaders sinking even further from the consciousness of our policy-making establishment.''

Since 1985, in concert with the democratizing reforms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, U.S. military aid to sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from $280 million to less than $39 million annually. In the same five-year period, U.S. annual economic assistance to the region has dropped 50 percent, to $850 million last year. Out of a total foreign-aid budget of $14.4 billion, poverty-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for just 6 percent.

One ironic effect of changing U.S. policy during the last 15 years in Africa is that in Somalia ``we now have practically the largest embassy in the world in a country where there are no American advisers or even an ambassador,'' Schraeder said.

But perhaps even more ironic is that at a moment in history when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops are preparing for a possible war in the Persian Gulf, the Somali air and sea port at Berbera - once considered a vital base from which to respond to threats in the Middle East and Gulf region - has not seen a single U.S. ship or plane in the last two years.

``The strategic significance of many African countries has been drastically reduced,'' Wolpe said.

``In the long term, this may be good; it may reduce dependency on foreign support and weapons. But in the short term in Somalia, as it was in Liberia, you may see an awful lot of additional violence and killing,'' he added.

Wolpe said he believed that much bloodshed in Liberia - where more than 5,000 people have been slain in civil war over the past year, including President Doe - could have been averted if the United States had put greater pressure on Doe to leave the country. Similarly, he said, Siad Barre's departure could stem greater violence in Somalia.

Wolpe said he met recently with top State Department officials to discuss this but was told that such considerations were being left to Italy, Somalia's former colonial ruler.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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