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Somalia: Decades of Unintended Consequences

President Bush is beginning to discover what his father learned while he was in the White House. Somalia is -- and has been for decades -- a case study in the law of unintended consequences. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, jockeying for influence on the Horn of Africa, poured weapons into Somalia and Ethiopia. Washington and Moscow now have different strategic interests; but the weapons are still being profitably employed, killing and maiming thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis. Unintended consequences.

In 1992, television pictures of starving Somalis, especially the children, engaged the consciences and generosity of millions of Americans, including then-President Bush. He had just been defeated by Bill Clinton -- it was in that lame-duck period between election and inauguration day -- and in an act of statesmanship and decency, President Bush ordered American troops into Somalia to control the militias, stabilize the country and distribute food and medicine.

Controlling the warlords proved more difficult than anyone had expected, and ten months after American troops first landed, a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down during a mission to capture one of those warlords. After a bloody, 17-hour battle, 18 U.S. soldiers were dead and 84 were wounded. The body of one Ranger was memorably photographed being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The unintended consequence of a humanitarian mission.

Five months later, in March of 1994, U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia. Washington had learned a lesson. Unfortunately for the people of another African country, it may have been the wrong lesson. The genocide in Rwanda began in April of 1994. But when the Canadian commander of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda desperately appealed for reinforcements to stop the killing, Washington, in particular, was not about to risk U.S. troops on another humanitarian mission in Africa. Before it was over, more than 800,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered. Another unintended consequence of the Somalia experience.

And now it appears that the United States has been supporting the militias it once tried to eradicate, to the tune of more than $100,000 a month. In case you've lost track, those are the very warlords who attacked U.S. troops more than a decade ago and who were just defeated by the Islamist militias.

The State Department today rejected suggestions that U.S. policy in Somalia has been dealt a setback. The President let us know today that he and his advisers are going to strategize on Somalia. That's all very reassuring; although it's hard to see how things could be any worse if they just left it alone.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Respected broadcast journalist Ted Koppel is a commentator who provides analysis and perspective on the topics and events that shape our world. His news experience and interests are wide-ranging, spanning topics from national security, values, privacy, health and the media to Iran, Iraq and the Mideast.