Illegal Acts In Africa

US Air Force AC-130U gunship over a map of Somaliam flags of US and Somalia AP Photo/U.S. Air Force

This column was written by John B. Judis.


What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Of course, when one nation attacks another, the other can respond. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, was justified on those grounds. The Taliban weren't simply sheltering Al Qaeda; they were in league with them and had become dependent upon them. To justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration invented an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's regime. It was pure artifice — remember the drones bearing nuclear weapons headed for our shores — but the very fact that the Bush administration felt it had to resort to deception meant that it understood that a certain principle of international relations was at stake.

But, last month, the Bush administration actively supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. It provided money, advisers, and, finally, U.S. warplanes. And there was no justification for Ethiopia's invasion. It was a clear violation of the U.N. charter. The neighboring people have been feuding for centuries, but Ethiopia's Christian government could not cite a significant provocation for its attack on the Muslim country and its Islamic government. If anything, Ethiopia's invasion closely resembled Iraq's invasion in August 1990 of Kuwait. But, instead of criticizing the Ethiopians, the United States applauded and aided them.

The administration claimed that, in supporting Ethiopia, it was fighting the ubiquitous "war on terrorism." According to The New York Times, administration officials even held out the Ethiopia invasion as a model of how it would prosecute the war on terrorism by proxy. By this account, Somalia was Afghanistan, and its Islamic Courts Union government was the Taliban. But the analogy does not hold up. The United States claimed that the Islamic Courts government, which took power last summer, was harboring three Al Qaeda fugitives. But the Al Qaeda members had been in Somalia well before the Islamic Courts took power. They were not part of the government. And Al Qaeda itself did not have training camps in Somalia. Somalia was less like Afghanistan than Pakistan, which, according to outgoing National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, is also home to Al Qaeda members.

In the wake of the Ethiopian invasion, the administration made a stronger claim. On December 14, Jendayi Frazer, the State Department official for Africa, said, "The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by Al Qaeda cell individuals — East Africa Al Qaeda cell individuals." But Frazer didn't name any individuals. And intelligence analysts have questioned her claim, which, according to The Washington Post, was "[b]ased in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia." As Matthew Yglesias put it, "In other words, we're backing Ethiopia's war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia."

The Bush administration often claims that it is encouraging democracy, but the invasion itself probably represents a net loss of freedom — and that's a hard calculation to make among these governments. The U.S.-backed Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi has been widely accused of human rights violations. After the Ethiopian opposition protested that the 2005 election was rigged, the Meles government killed 193 demonstrators and arrested about 80,000 others to quell the protests. Teshale Aberra, the president of the Supreme Court in Ethiopia's largest province who defected to Great Britain last fall, said, "There is massive killing all over. There is a systematic massacre." Meanwhile, in Somalia, the Islamic Courts replaced a weak transitional regime that was unable to control the warlords, who, since 1991, have turned the countryside into a Hobbesian jungle. The new government had brought a harsh Islamic justice and order to Somalia, which, for all its own injustice, was preferable to the chaos that had prevailed.

With the ouster of the Islamic Courts, the warlords are likely to return to power. Somalia will probably be plunged into another guerrilla war, as the Islamists try to retake power. And the United States will once again ally with these warlords and with a weak, corrupt regime. (According to Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali, the United States was actually paying off the aide to the militia leader responsible for killing 18 Americans in 1993 in the famous Black Hawk Down incident.) And who will benefit from American intervention? Al Qaeda, which will be able to draw up another recruiting poster from the American-sponsored invasion of a Muslim country. Al Qaeda will be able to point, in particular, to U.S. airstrikes that claimed to target Al Qaeda but instead killed scores of innocent civilians.

That's what happened on January 7 and 8 in Somali border towns; the United States claimed its bombs were intended to kill an Al Qaeda operative supposedly connected to the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But he was not among the victims; nor were other Al Qaeda members. Then reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from the AC-130 gunships that the United States supposedly sent to hunt down the single terrorist. According to Oxfam, the dead included 70 nomads who were searching for water sources. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that 100 were wounded in an attack on Ras Kamboni, a fishing village near the Kenyan border. The Economist, which is not an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, wrote, "The Americans used the AC-130, a behemoth designed to shred large areas instantly, in the knowledge that the killing fields would be cleared before journalists and aid workers could reach them." It's a war crime to kill civilians indiscriminately.

In the 1990s, foreign policy experts, eager to identify a new enemy, hit upon the concept of a "rogue state." A rogue state operated outside the bounds of international norms and had to be restrained. The obvious candidates at the time were Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But the Bush administration has turned the United States itself into a rogue state. Tough-minded conservatives, flexing their "muscular" inclinations from comfortable sinecures in Washington, may dismiss concerns about international law and war crimes as inventions of silly panty-waist liberals. But these inventions, which, in the modern era, were championed by Theodore Roosevelt, were meant to protect Americans as well as other peoples from the wars and the inhumanity that prevailed for thousands of years. We ignore them at their peril, whether in Haditha or Ras Kamboni.
By John B. Judis
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