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Somalia and the Cycle of Arms Sales

The US has to control the spread of conventional arms to areas of conflict

FEW of the foreign-policy crises Bill Clinton inherited from George Bush is more instructive for future United States foreign policy than the ongoing humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

There is widespread support for the immediate goal of US forces - to keep bands of gun-toting thugs from stealing food out of the mouths of starving men, women, and children. But now in the third month of this military mission it is time to analyze how US policies of the 1980s contributed to the violent disintegration in Somalia in the 1990s. The conflict in Somalia is a textbook case of what is wrong with the cold-war policy of using arms sales as a principal tool of US foreign policy. If President Clin ton learns that bitter lesson he can better craft a strategy for preventing similar conflicts from breaking out in the future.

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Much has been made of the prominence of AK-47s and other Soviet weaponry in the arsenals of Somali rival factions. That criticism is entirely appropriate: for years Somalia served as a Soviet client state and received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidized weaponry in the process. However, throughout the 1980s it was not the Soviets who were pouring arms into Somalia - it was the US.

Beginning late in the Carter administration and continuing through 1989 when human rights abuses and the state of civil war led to a cessation of US arms transfers to Somalia, the regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre received roughly $1 billion in US military and economic aid. About one-third of that aid was devoted to arms transfers.

Some of the weaponry the US government supplied to the Siad Barre dictatorship is now in the hands of the armed bands that US forces were sent to Somalia to deal with - including military trucks, M-16 rifles, land mines, and recoilless rifles. US troops are being asked to clean up a political and military mess that is partly our own making.

The rationale for US arms aid to Somalia was pure cold-war geopolitics. The Carter administration decided that Somali ports and airfields would be useful as stepping stones for potential military intervention in the Middle East by the US rapid deployment force (since renamed the central command). It was a straight quid pro quo: US arms were swapped for access to Somali military facilities such as the port at Berbera. The fact that Mr. Siad Barre was a vicious dictator who was running his country into the

ground economically was conveniently overlooked in the interests of the larger geopolitical agenda of using Somalia as a platform for intervention in the Middle East. Time and again, Pentagon and State Department officials justified the arms flow to Siad Barre's regime on the grounds that it would "foster stability" in the region. It is hard to imagine a situation further from this promised "stability" than the armed chaos that reigned in Somalia when US troops were dispatched there in December.

Even as we wish US and United Nations forces well in their efforts to end the violence in Somalia, the citizens of this nation are entitled to an explanation of why our government chose to fuel this conflict for more than a decade in the name of "stability." The next time the Pentagon or State Department bureaucracies trot out that tired old cold-war argument to justify shipping US weaponry to another region of conflict, Clinton should ask them to think again.

As the world's leading arms exporting nation, the US has a responsibility to play a leadership role in crafting a multilateral system for controlling the spread of conventional armaments to regions of conflict. As Somalia has demonstrated, the US is the nation that is most likely to be called upon to use force to deal with the new ethnic, religious, and territorial conflicts of our era. As such we have a vital national interest in limiting the availability of armaments in these strife-torn regions.

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The sooner Clinton grasps this fundamental point and acts on it, the better off the US and the international community will be.

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