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A Lesson From Somalia

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"You can only help people if you have sufficient resources and they have sufficient political unity and will to be helped," declared Anthony Cordesman, the well-known military analyst. "And we should not risk American lives without far better planning, intelligence and understanding of exactly what it is we're trying to do and of the risks."

One prominent senator declared: "If the Congress voted right now, we would vote to pull our troops out." Another warned against "a vague, open-ended, humanitarian mission, gradually taking sides against an urban guerrilla force, having no exit strategy before you go in, having troops on the ground before you've defined their mission, and a series of ad hoc decisions."

But the president insisted that we should "finish the work we set out to do," and he won praise from an official on the ground who declared: "It would be a disaster if the United States pulled out now."

All these eerily contemporary comments came from an Oct. 10, 1993, broadcast of ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." The participants were reflecting on administration policy in Somalia a week after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by rebel forces. Eighteen Americans died in the incident. The senators were Phil Gramm and Bill Bradley, the president was Bill Clinton, and the supportive comments came from Adm. Jonathan Howe, the U.N. special envoy to Somalia.

There are many flaws in comparisons between Somalia and Iraq, but one similarity should not be forgotten. If the United States is not careful, our troops will find themselves in the middle of a full-blown Iraqi civil war. This could make President Bush's talk about "victory" -- he used the word at least 13 times in his speech on the war yesterday -- seem hollow.

No one is more aware of this than our military commanders, which is why attention must be paid to comments last week by Lt. Gen. John R. Vines to the New York Times, and to an important news story by Jonathan Finer in the Jan. 4 Post.

Vines praised the large turnout in Iraq's Dec. 15 election but noted that the "vote is reported to be primarily along sectarian lines, which is not particularly heartening." The new government, he said, "must be a government by and for Iraqis, not sects." He added: "As the government forms, if we see indicators that there are purges of competent people to be replaced with ideologues in the security ministries, that would be disturbing. If competent commanders were to be replaced by those whose main qualification is an allegiance to a sect, that would be of concern to us."

The importance of that last sentence was brought home by Finer's Post report: "Over the strong objections of U.S. commanders in Baghdad, the Iraqi government has nominated a new leader for a brigade that is set to assume control over some of the capital's most sensitive areas."

Why was the American choice cast aside? "U.S. commanders," Finer wrote, "are concerned that the rejection of a qualified Sunni Muslim candidate by a government that is dominated by the rival Shiite Muslim majority will fuel perceptions of Iraq's security forces as sectarian institutions, particularly in Sunni regions where sympathy for the insurgency runs deep."

The potential for a full-scale civil war is closer than ever. The administration presumably knows this, but the Bush team's record for anticipating bad news is not encouraging. Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. civilian authority in Iraq after the invasion, admitted on NBC's "Dateline" that "we really didn't see the insurgency coming." If they missed that, what else can they miss?

Bush's election-year attacks yesterday on "partisan critics" and "defeatists" don't give much hope he's open to any advice from the opposition. But he ought to listen to Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who opposed the war but keeps trying to help Bush out of this mess. Levin argues that the United States' priority is not simply to create a broad coalition government in Iraq. America must use its influence to push the Shiite majority to change provisions in the recently adopted constitution in ways that will give the minority Sunnis a bigger stake in the future. "There's no military solution in Iraq unless there is a political coming together in Iraq," Levin said during an interview, offering words that should be framed and hung somewhere in Bush's office. Without constitutional changes, he added, "there will be a civil war regardless of how many troops we have there."

Maybe Bush, who yesterday reminded the Shiites and the Kurds of the importance of protecting minority rights "against the tyranny of the majority," is listening. Somalia offers a sobering lesson of what can happen to American forces when our government blunders into the middle of a civil war. We dare not do it again. And we had better see the warning signs.

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