President's Corner: President Bush Could Repeat His Father's Mistake in Somalia

01/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At the end of his presidency in 1992 President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. troops to Somalia as part of a United Nations operation that ended in disaster for America. His son, President George W. Bush, could make a similar mistake.

The current Bush administration is rightly concerned about escalating violence and humanitarian tragedy in Somalia, Somali piracy in the Indian Ocean, and the increasing fragility of the U.S.-backed government in Somalia. In response it is proposing a plan that could lead to greater military involvement in Somalia by the United Nations and most likely by the U.S. and its allies.

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. is discussing the deployment of a small UN peacekeeping force to the capital city of Mogadishu to protect the current government. In addition, it is proposing a draft resolution that says that all nations "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory to plan, facilitate or undertake acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea and to otherwise prevent those activities." Such actions would almost certainly involve the U.S. military.

I think the resolution is crazy, and I'm not alone. Some of our closest allies, who also can veto UN Security Council Resolutions, oppose the plan. The top officials in the U.S. military, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have raised questions about the wisdom of the plan. And Somali experts are speaking out against it.

"These eleventh hour shifts in policy will only create more blowback for the United States in the region, and serve as a de facto recruiting tool for hard-line Islamist militia, or shabaab, that is wrapping itself in a mantle of Somali nationalism fighting foreign forces," according to Ken Menkhaus, a Somali expert who advises the Enough Project. The U.S. is already supporting an unpopular deployment of Ethiopian soldiers to Somalia in support of an increasingly weak and unpopular government.

Somalia is a poor, violent and largely lawless country torn apart by a series of civil wars. Any solution to these problems must start with political reconciliation and economic growth, not military action. I thought the U.S. learned this lesson 15 years ago when Somali militia forces shot down a U.S. helicopter and killed 18 Army Rangers, a loss chronicled in the book and movie, Blackhawk Down. U.S. forces had gone to Somalia as part of a UN humanitarian mission supported by the first President Bush in 1992, but the mission morphed into an anti-warlord security mission in 1993, with disastrous consequences.

Could a similar tragedy happen again? You bet. A small UN peacekeeping force, as the U.S, and others have proposed, would not have the strength to protect the current government or civilians. In fact, it would be vulnerable to attack itself, as is the current African Union force in the Somali capital. As for fighting piracy, the Associated Press reported that Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "There are many that are seeking a simple military address the piracy issue. I think that we need to take a more comprehensive look at this, and while there may be a military component, this is an issue that has to be addressed more broadly." Both Secretary Gates and the U.S. admiral who would implement an anti-piracy policy have also raised concerns.

Somalia today is a humanitarian disaster. More than 3.2 million people--40% of the population--depend on outside assistance. Some 1.3 million Somalis are displaced within the country and some 400,000 are refugees in surrounding countries. My colleagues, Patrick Duplat and Jake Kurtzer, surveyed conditions of Somali refugees last month. They concluded that "the incoming U.S. administration should overhaul U.S. policy towards Somalia by taking a comprehensive regional approach, prioritizing the provision of humanitarian assistance and calling for a truly inclusive political process."

What we need in Somalia today is a new approach, not a return to a failed one.

--Kenneth Bacon