Gettleman on Somalia


If you have the chance, please do read Jeffrey Gettleman’s article on Somalia in Foreign Policy magazine. It’s not only a great piece in its own right, but it’s a useful corrective to some of the imperial hubris that’s often wafting around in Washington:

In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I’ve felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I’ve spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today’s Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world.

The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets. There is no Green Zone here, by the way—no fortified place of last resort to run to if, God forbid, you get hurt or in trouble. In Somalia, you’re on your own. The local hospitals barely have enough gauze to treat all the wounds. […]

It’s crunch time for Somalia, but the world is like me, standing in the doorway, looking in at two decades of unbridled anarchy, unsure what to do. Past interventions have been so cursed that no one wants to get burned again. The United States has been among the worst of the meddlers: U.S. forces fought predacious warlords at the wrong time, backed some of the same predacious warlords at the wrong time, and consistently failed to appreciate the twin pulls of clan and religion. As a result, Somalia has become a graveyard of foreign-policy blunders that have radicalized the population, deepened insecurity, and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.

There’s an enormous tendency in this town, and in establishment circles more generally, to see American involvement in a situation as by definition offering a solution. And certainly the United States has involved itself constructively in many situations around the world over the decades. But it’s not some kind of law of nature that us poking around somewhere is a good idea. And in Somalia, at least, our involvement has been hugely destructive. Not, I think, because we meant badly. But because we’ve been unable to simply accept that the internal politics of Somalia and the regional politics of the Horn of Africa just aren’t something that the American people or the American government are knowledgeable about or competent to deal with. We’ve engaged fitfully, thoughtlessly, and in a manner that usually involves us getting manipulated by the much-better-informed and much-more-committed players on the ground.