THE BLOG
12/27/2006 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is the Press Standing Up to the State Department's Somalia Offensive?

Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy, December 27, 2006

The State Department "came out of the closet" and openly declared its support for the Ethiopian offensive in Somalia, the New York Times reported today. The Times reports on the State Department's press strategy:

The State Department instructed officials to play down the Ethiopian invasion in public statements. "Should the press focus on the role of Ethiopia inside Somalia," the State Department memo said, "emphasize that this is a distraction from the issue of dialogue between the [transitional government] and Islamic courts and shift the focus back to the need for dialogue." "The press must not be allowed to make this about Ethiopia, or Ethiopia violating the territorial integrity of Somalia," the memo said.

Is the State Department's press strategy working? Certainly, the press is reporting on the Ethiopian offensive. But as the Bush Administration has become more open about its support for the Ethiopian invasion, U.S. press criticism appears to have become muted somewhat.

An African Union and Arab League call for Ethiopia to withdraw all its troops from Somalia was prominently reported by the BBC, but doesn't seem to have appeared at this writing in the US press.

Last week the Washington Post reported some key facts. It said that the Bush Administration had given "tacit approval" and a "green light" for Ethiopia to invade. Yesterday the Post muddied the issue, saying that the U.S. had "remained on the sidelines."

Last week the Washington Post also reported division in the Administration on the significance of links between the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia and Al Qaeda, with the intelligence community, in particular Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, expressing skepticism about Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer's claim that the Islamic Courts Union is controlled by Al Qaeda.

But yesterday's Washington Post merely says that regional analysts think the claim is exaggerated.

A key problem is that once a story is established US news media tend to depend on cues from politicians to establish what is an appropriate subject of controversy. But members of Congress have not been speaking up about Somalia. You might think this is in part due to the holidays, and in part you would surely be right. But Senator Biden was in the press today, criticizing the Bush Administration's plan to "surge" troops in Iraq, and saying he was going to hold hearings, so presumably he or others could have gotten in the press talking about Somalia, if they wanted to.

And it's surely the case that representatives would be more likely to speak out about Somalia if they heard from more constituents that they were concerned about what the Bush Administration is doing there. So, one way to improve the press coverage is to tell your representatives in Congress that the US should be supporting diplomacy in Somalia, not war. You can, if you wish, use this link to do so.