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Backstory

By Matthew Yglesias

"Backstory"

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Forced to choose between intensive inquiry into the idea of swapping Ron Artest for Corey Maggette or else looking further at the Horn of African situation, I reluctantly chose what was behind door number two. Take a look back, shall we, at the December 7 State Department briefing. Sean McCormick got a question: “Sean, on Somalia. The Islamists say that they are sort of less than happy with the UN’s endorsement of this African peacekeeping force and they say that it’s just going to add fuel to the fire. I wondered whether you — were causing sort of a regional war?” McCormick replies, “no.” The questioner wants more: “Do you have any comment?” McCormick elaborates:

Look, this is — this force was authorized as a training and protection force for the Transitional Federal Institutions. Its approval takes place within the context of policy that we believe that the way forward here is for negotiations between the Islamic Courts and the Transitional Federal Institutions. As long as the Islamic Courts perceive that they can continue to back the Transitional Federal Institutions into a tighter and tighter and smaller and smaller corner, there of course is less and less incentive one would expect for them to actually want to negotiate. So I can understand why they may be less than happy about this. But this is a policy that is endorsed by a number of different countries in the region.

The force will be deployed under the aegis of the IGAD countries, which is the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, and it’s an East African regional organization. And the resolution also clearly states that neighboring states: Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti will not deploy troops to Somalia. So it actually specifically addresses this idea that somehow this action will directly lead to some wider conflict on the — in the Horn of Africa.

In short, the state of play a few weeks ago was this. Islamists were threatening to overrun the powerless Transitional Government unless an international peacekeeping force was sent in to protect them. So the United States sought to get such a force and, indeed, the UN agreed to authorize one. The Islamic Courts Union said that such a move would lead to a regional war. According to The Washington Post, “the United States accommodated a European request to exclude participation by Somalia’s neighbors, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti, in the new force.” Our stated policy, as McCormick indicated, was to avoid rather than cause a regional war.

Now at this time, Ethiopia had already “sent thousands of troops [to Somalia] to help prop up the government.” Presumably, the deployment of a UN-approved force that would exclude Ethiopian participation (it was to be led by Uganda) would have precluded the Ethiopians from further expanding their ambit of control in Somalia. Thus, the war is launched to pre-empt the deployment of the Ugandan-led force — apparently with American approval contrary to the policy McCormick outlined earlier in December. New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz approves, citing the prospects for a Jew/Rastafarian/Christian alliance against Islamist influence in East Africa.

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