THE NEWS about Somalia, in case you haven't kept up, is that the Reagan administration is proceeding in an orderly fashion, not in the hasty helter-skelter way some had anticipated, to maintain the American position in the Horn of Africa. The president of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, came through town the other day and left with just about the same level of real aid as had been begun in the Carter years. Mr. Siad Barre seemed a bit disgruntled not to make a big breakthrough-- Somalia does remain No. 3 on the sub-Saharan American aid list, after Sudan and Kenya. From the American point of view, however, a steady course seems best.
The reason for this does not lie simply in the uncertainties of the internal Somali situation. President Siad Barre came to power 13 years ago promising elections, which have yet to be held. He relies increasingly on his family: the foreign, health, planning and finance ministers are relatives. Donors of aid to his breathtakingly poor country, including the United States, acknowledge the drag that his policies place on development. At the moment, the Somali claim on territory held by neighboring Ethiopia is not being pressed actively on the battlefield, thanks in part perhaps to the restraint quietly advised by Washington, but the obsession remains. After all, President Siad Barre kicked out the Soviets and took the political risk of inviting the United States to improve and use Somali military facilities precisely to improve his chances of some day regaining "Western Somalia."
There is another reason for the United States to proceed at a measured pace in strengthening its "presence," as officials put it, "all along the vital oil lines of the Middle East." The Persian Gulf may or may not turn out to be a continuing centerpiece of the American geopolitical view. In the 1970s, Gulf producers caught the West's attention with an oil boycott. The fall of the shah and the invasion of Afghanistan sharpened the sense of vulnerability. This was the soil in which grew the idea of preparing an American Persian Gulf expeditionary force. Hence the need for facilities in Somalia and elsewhere.
Now, however, American consumption of and dependence on Gulf oil are small and getting smaller. The allies, who consume much more of that oil, are increasingly taking steps to diminish their reliance on Washington to ensure their access to it. Americans are paying closer heed to the immense likely costs, and other complications, of the Rapid Deployment Force. In these circumstances, it makes sense to stay in gear so that the RDF can proceed if it still seems essential, but not to sprint ahead. That is consistent with the approach the administration took to President Siad Barre.