This week has been an extraordinary one for Somalia.
The past seven days have brought both the resignation of Somalia's president and the beginnings of a military withdrawal by his main backer, Ethiopia. This comes amid an onslaught of pirate attacks off Somalia's volatile coast, the takeover of most of the center and south of the country by Islamic insurgents, and perhaps the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet.
Somalia watchers can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Two years ago, before the shock and awe of the US-backed Ethiopian invasion, the country looked rather similar. Somalia was then, as it is now, largely ruled by Islamic militias and judicial bodies; the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its president were almost completely impotent, and the humanitarian situation was bleak.
Two years and many rendition flights later, America has little to show for its efforts. In fact, things have gotten much worse.
The US backed the Ethiopian overthrow of the ruling Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in pursuit of at least three Al Qaeda suspects. Since then it is estimated that over 10,000 Somalis have been killed and 1 million displaced. 3.5 million people are in need of immediate food aid. The occupation has turned the population against the government and strengthened extremist groups. Anti-Americanism is at a height.
The new generation of Islamic rulers like Al Shabab care little for the scholarly debates of the UIC, which pitted mystics and moderates against hardline elements in a recognized structure. These new brutal militias now control more territory than the UIC did at its height. Both piracy and anarchy -- effectively defeated two years ago by the UIC -- are back in force.
The Ethiopian withdrawal will leave Somalia with a massive power vacuum. The only other international troops in the country are African Union-backed Ugandan and Burundian skeleton forces who can barely leave their bases for fear of attack.
The international community is at an impasse. The consensus seems to be that UN troops are desired, but not yet. For now the West -- which greatly contributed to the current mess -- is putting the burden on the African Union, which isn't entirely fair. The AU, however noble in its desire to promote stability on the continent, has neither the manpower, resources, nor cultural knowledge necessary to mount a successful operation in Somalia.
All "humanitarian aid missions" are not the same. While foreign troops have helped in countries like Liberia and Ivory Coast, the global conflict between Islam and the West after 9/11 has meant that interventions in Muslim countries -- especially by Westerners -- have been more difficult. Foreign troops inserted into Somalia now, be they from the United Nations or from fellow African countries, will be greeted as occupiers and will face a lethal insurgency. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knows this, which is why he is so hesitant to commit blue helmets.
So, given the dire situation, what is to be done? Despite its mistakes in the region, the United States is best suited to bring Somalia's factions together in a lasting peace.
This time the US should go in not with drones but diplomacy. President-elect Barack Obama will face a dizzying array of challenges when he takes office, but he must not let Somalia once again be neglected.
Obama -- who is very popular among Somalis -- or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should go to Somalia immediately after the inauguration to give muscle and credibility to the peace process. This would open a new chapter in US/Somali relations and signal that the US was serious about engaging with Somalia in a sustained and intelligent way.
The US and its Western allies should work with moderate Muslims and extend dialogue invitations to those who disagree with its policy in the region. It should fund health and education programs and make it clear to the Somali people that the US is not at war with them or their Islamic faith. This would both attack piracy at its root by restoring stability and help to swing the pendulum away from radicals toward the tolerant Sufi Islam native to Somalia.
Some of this is already happening. Last month Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- one of the few American lawmakers speaking consistently about Somalia -- met in Djibouti with leaders of the Somali peace process including Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former school teacher who helped form the UIC after one of his pupils was kidnapped by warlords.
This high level activity should be accompanied by an effort to reach Somalis at the local, tribal level, which can only be done by gaining a knowledge and appreciation of how Somali society works. The CIA should put away its briefcases of cash for warlords and pick up books on Somalia by scholars like I.M. Lewis.
An international stabilization force may well be what is needed, but the tough groundwork will have to be laid first. And for this the Somali people must be on board.
In Somalia the US has another shot to stabilize the Horn of Africa, improve relations with the Muslim world, and save a people from complete destruction. This time, let's get it right.