Huffpost WorldPost
Richard Walden Headshot

Somalia: Henry Kissinger and Me, Circa 1980

Posted: Updated:

How long has Somalia endured cycles of violence, political dismemberment and famine?

Without giving away my advanced age, just after Ronald Reagan was elected but before he was sworn in, Henry Kissinger was desperately trying to reprise his roles as U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. Kissinger knew President-elect Reagan was not especially fond of him and Reagan's Transition Team out and out detested him... but he must have thought having worked for President Nixon (whom we now know was prone to anti-semitic outbursts which were captured on tape in the Oval Office) and President Ford, that he was far more qualified for a high level foreign policy post than were any of Reagan's people.

Somalia was sagely thought by Kissinger to be ready for a tour de force, however off our collective radar screen it was at that time. Its deep water port of Berbera at the mouth of the Red Sea was being used by the Soviet Union to the great distress of the West and most of the Arab world. Somali President Mohammad Siad Barre had sent a generation of young Somalis to be educated and trained in Moscow and was earlier thought to be firmly in the Soviet camp... To the great surprise of the USSR, Barre decided to attack Ethiopia and try to regain his tribal homeland deep in the Ogaden Desert. When the USSR made a choice between Marxist Ethiopia and Islamic-Marxist (sic) Somalia, it chose Ethiopia as the better bet. As the Ethiopian army retreated in the desert, 13,000 Cuban troops were flown in by the USSR to combat invading Somali forces.

What better time for a Kissingerian intervention -- not for peacekeeping as he was never known for that -- but for Machiavellian manipulation... The good doctor borrowed a private jet and was received with high expectations at Barre's Presidential Palace in Mogadishu. Kissinger, according to those present at their meetings who told me about the talks just a week later when I came to Mogadishu (jumping off a plane from Rome to The Seychelles making a fuel stop in Mogadishu and on an aid mission for what was then Operation California -- and is now Operation USA), was there to perform his diplomatic alchemy. He vividly described American arms which would flow after Reagan's inauguration a few weeks later...provided the Somalis invited the Russians to evacuate the naval base at Berbera and hand it over to US forces. The pretext would be Russia's choosing Ethiopia's side in a war Somalia clearly launched against Ethiopia.

When I met Barre and his ministers, I had thought my own role would be as "ambassador of bandaids". My NGO had flown the first western aircraft into Cambodia (1979) and Vietnam (1979) since the end of the Vietnam War. Pharmaceutical companies were showering us with expensive medications; air cargo carriers were laying on free cargo jets; and, a little humanitarian diplomacy was on order as millions of Somalis and Ethiopians were both drought and disease-afflicted and now were fleeing the massive military movements in the Ogaden.

I asked the Somalis to describe what Kissinger promised them. They said with enthusiasm that he had mentioned asking Reagan for $40 million in immediate U.S. military assistance in return for using Berbera as a Navy base. I rose and asked everyone to join me at a window overlooking a parking lot next to The Palace -- it had space for maybe 50 cars. I told them that with Pentagon accounting, $40 million worth of "stuff" (used tanks, jeeps, small arms) would likely not fill that parking lot... they looked amazed. The deal was not consummated, Kissinger never got the diplomatic post he wanted despite his manipulations, the Somalis lost the war while draining what little assets they had to feed their people, and Berbera -- part of a different tradition -- joined its immediate neighbors and declared independence (now Northern Somaliland, a much more stable place than current-day Somalia and home to naval ships and commerce from many countries).

As for me, I learned that discussing bandaids and aspirin deliveries could be combined into the larger context of relationships with countries.

[Next chapter: What was the "final straw" for the Philippines in deciding not to renew the US military base leases at Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay in 1986? hint: HIV/AIDS Meets Trident Submarines and B-2 bombers].