"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


a big misstep

I spent the whole weekend trying to figure out who thought it would be a good idea to send several million dollars' worth of small arms to the transitional government in Somalia. At first I thought I was just having nightmares as an effect of jet lag, but then an alert reader sent me the transcript of the State Department's briefing and it turns out to be true. The United States government has supplied something less than $10 million worth of "small arms and limited munitions" to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.

Since small arms are a tiny bit of a problem in Somalia, which is not at all controlled by the official government, there's a UN embargo on sending arms to the region. Apparently the U.S. government was able to obtain a waiver for these particular weapons. The reason? The TFG will be using the weapons to combat the radical Islamist group al Shabaab, which controls most of Mogadishu and the south. Al Shabaab is viewed by the U.S. as a close ally of al Qaeda, so the idea is that sending in weapons to a government that controls a few blocks of Mogadishu will help to combat the threat of radical Islamists in the Horn of Africa, thereby protecting our allies in Kenya and maybe even addressing the piracy problem.

This is a terrible, terrible idea. There's just no other way of putting it. Except to say that whoever approved this plan clearly has no concept of what the flood of small arms in the Horn of Africa has done to innocent civilians, not only in Somalia, but throughout the region. Every time we have sent weapons into Somalia, those weapons have been used to harm civilians, not only in Somalia, but also in Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Uganda, southern Sudan, and the eastern Congo. In the markets in the eastern DR Congo, you can buy American, Israeli, and Soviet-made weapons that came into the continent via the Horn in the mid-1970's when the US and USSR were busy switching allegiances about as often as the wind changed. Somalia is saturated with small arms (many of which are brand-spanking new thanks to the profits the Puntland pirates are bringing in). Sending in more, even to the so-called "good guys," will only result in more civilian suffering.

The decision also reflects a clear misunderstanding of the TFG's capabilities. The TFG is a government in name only. Of all the markers of modern statehood that allow a government to claim legitimacy, the TFG has only one: international recognition. On every other marker - territorial control, capacity to manage the economy, ability to coin money, run a judicial system, defend borders, police the streets - the TFG fails the test. They don't even have a functioning website. And we want to give these guys weapons? For use by their so-called army?

Despite the fact that competence and critical reasoning skills have returned to the White House at last, this decision reveals an ugly fact about U.S. foreign policy towards Africa: regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the administration, the United States is really bad at Africa policy. The Clinton people - many of whom have returned to key positions in the Obama administration - were terrible in their dealings with Africa. Not only did they let Rwanda languish (and then actively prevent anyone else from intervening in what was clearly a genocide, their lame excuses notwithstanding), but people like Susan Rice (now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) managed to almost singlehandedly destroy our relationship with the French over African matters by steamrolling through the haphazardly conceived and poorly funded African Crisis Response Initiative program. They bungled HIV/AIDS policy, cowering to the drug companies until Clinton left office and letting millions of Africans die without hope.

Bush's people didn't do much better, except on HIV/AIDS, where a sensible policy on ARV's saved millions of lives. (That they caused countless new infections with their policy on condoms may negate the effects of PEPFAR's success down the line.) But on security issues, the Bush administration didn't understand African states any better than its predecessors. In the aftermath of 9/11, the administration's Africa-watchers became very concerned that Somalia would become a base for al Qaeda or al Qaeda-aligned groups. In fact, it's not clear that the Islamists showed up in Somalia until they learned it was a good idea from the statements of the Bush administration and others.

One hopes that Clinton's Africanists learned from their mistakes, but the decision to send arms into Somalia suggests that the Obama administration's Africa policy will largely consist of business as usual. What is the normal modus operandi for U.S. Africa policy? I'd suggest three common characteristics:
  1. A tendency to reduce conflict, policy disagreements, or territorial disputes to a "good guys vs. bad guys" mentality. Problem is, in many situations (see Darfur, most of the Congolese government), the so-called "good" guys have blood on their hands as well. In Somalia, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to remember that everyone has an agenda and that in that region, weapons marked for use against one group are always used against other groups by their owners.
  2. An insistence on pretending that the authorities in the capital city are in control of the country's territory and/or governing institutions, which usually leads to a refusal to deal with the people who are actually in control. This is a classic problem first identified in Robert H. Jackson's work on state legitimacy. Jackson pointed out that foreign governments usually ignore reality on the ground and instead confer legitimacy on whoever controls the presidential palace or government headquarters in an African state's capital city. It should be obvious why this is a problem. The Western-backed TFG is among the least legitimate institutions in Somalia, partly because they lack capacity (which this weapons plan is designed to correct) and partly because they are backed by the West. Pretending that they have real control - or that they have the consent of enough of Somalia's interest groups to establish real control at some future point - helps no one.
  3. The insistence that we must do something to help. Clearly, the situation in Somalia is terrible. There's a high degree of human suffering and the rise of al Shabaab is a threat to the national interest of the United States. But American policymakers have failed in this situation to recognize that doing something - especially in an open fashion - is not always a good idea. U.S. recognition is in many ways the kiss of death for Somali politicians. Once the TFG and its leaders got U.S. recognition, they lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Somalis and became even more of a target for the Islamists. Sending weapons to the government only makes them seem more like U.S. puppets in the eyes of most Somalis.
A friend who works at the State Department argued with me about this over the weekend. "Who should we support?" he said, the argument being that the United States can't support Islamists or non-state actors who actually control territory. But that's a logical fallacy, because it assumes support in the form of weapons provision is a necessary step. Sometimes doing something is much more harmful than doing nothing at all. The decision to send weapons to Somalia's TFG clearly fails the Love Actually test and it will almost certainly result in more civilian casualties. It will almost certainly not result in the establishment of actual control over Mogadishu or Somalia by the TFG.

Next up on the list of ineffable mysteries: who decided it was a good idea for Eliot Spitzer to commentate on Supreme Court decisions on MSNBC? Will someone be hiring Mark Sanford as a backcountry hiking expert next?


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