THE BLOG
02/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

George W. Bush's Inaugural Gift: Blackhawk Down-Redux: Obama's First Crisis, and the Legacy of Losing Somalia

Three years ago I asked, rhetorically, who lost Somalia? The question arose because the BBC had just reported that Islamic fundamentalists (ICU) had seized control of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. In June, 2006, a non-fundamentalist alliance of Somalian warlords, the ARPCT, announced that they had driven the ICU out of the capital.

The ICU claimed that the CIA had funded the warlords and supplied arms to them in order to free Somalia from Islamic fundamentalists. The CIA denied it, but the state department official for Somalia wrote Washington to criticize the policy paying off the Somali warlords, and it was reported in the New York Times that the payoffs had been approved by "top officials in Washington" and reaffirmed by the National Security Council. It is clear that George W. Bush did not want to lose Somalia on his watch.

Though the fundamentalists had been driven out of the capital and most of northern Somalia, they maintained control of much of southern Somalia through their alliances with local clan chiefs. They even seized the southern port of Kismayo, the only port still held by ARPCT. (I apologize for all the alphabet soup in this piece, but from here on in, for ICU read fundamentalists; for ARPCT read warlords.)

At that point, Ethiopia, with the approval, and, I believe, financial and tactical support, of the United States, came to the assistance of the warlords. Ethiopian troops seized control of several Somalian towns on their border, and the ICU declared war on Ethiopia. Heavy fighting followed, and the ICU retreated, first from Mogadishu, and then from Kismayo. The US openly intervened; sending American Air Force gun ships to attack ICU positions, resulting in heavy casualties. The fundamentalists were defeated, but over the next two years, they reorganized and regained control of large areas of Somalia.

Now, all that keeps Somalia from the total control of Islamic fundamentalists is the Ethiopian army. And this morning, I learned from the BBC that the Ethiopian army is pulling out of Somalia right now. Reports have circulated for the past ten days that some Ethiopian troops would leave Mogadishu, and it is well known that the Ethiopian government has wanted to bring their soldiers home for several months. But somehow the Bush administration had, according to the BBC, persuaded them to stay until today -- one week short of President-Elect Obama's inauguration.

Lest you have forgotten, it was President George H.W. Bush who left President-elect Bill Clinton with the Inauguration Day present of a crisis in Somalia. In December of 1992, following the overthrow of the pro-American Somali President, Siad Barre, President Bush sent US military into that country to lead a UN peacekeeping force bent on restoring order in Somalia. (Before his overthrow, Barre had granted oil concessions to Amoco, Conoco, Chevron and Philips, covering nearly two-thirds of Somalian territory.) One month later, they became Bill Clinton's problem.

Despite the best efforts of the UN forces, anti-Barre warlords seized control of Mogadishu, and when President Clinton reacted by sending American forces into the city, nineteen men died. Thus, Blackhawk Down -- nineteen Americans dead, and the warlords still in power. Conservatives blamed Clinton for the deaths and still consider Mogadishu the first of the "Clinton Scandals."

Why is Somalia still so important? Why would its "loss" be a blow to our security? Because it sits on the entrance to Bab el Mandeb, a seventeen mile wide strip of water which leads to the Red Sea, commonly known as "Tanker Alley". Seventeen percent of all US oil flows through "Tanker Alley," and even now, before the Islamists take over, it isn't the safest place in the world.

We have all read that Somalian pirates have just received millions of dollars as ransom for releasing a Saudi Arabian oil tanker carrying two million barrels of oil. Six years ago, Islamic terrorists operating in Yemen, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, blew up a French oil tanker, the Limburg, carrying 397,000 barrels of oil. Yemen was long regarded as an Al Qaeda sanctuary. If we "lose" Somalia, Islamic terrorists will be sitting on both sides of the Gulf of Aden. That poses an enormous threat to US energy supplies.

So why would President Bush permit our Ethiopian allies to leave Somalia, practically delivering it to the fundamentalists? Because it's not his problem anymore. Just as his father left the Somalian craziness as a present to Bill Clinton, younger Bush is burdening Obama with the problem. Yesterday, President Bush said he didn't find the presidency a "burden." That's because he shirked most of the burdens of his office, and he's shirking this one. Anything from here on in happens on Obama's watch, and George can sit in Texas and blame Barack. If things go bad in Somalia in 2012, Republicans will be chanting, who lost Somalia? Barack! Barack! Barack!

With our army tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our navy last Thursday just beginning to transfer a few ships from patrolling the Persian Gulf to patrolling the Gulf of Aden, what additional resources are we prepared to send over to Somalia to keep "Tanker Alley" open if the fundamentalists do take over? I hope this serves to put everyone on notice, that whatever happens in Somalia from here on in, it's still George Bush's fault.