TO many people around the United States, ``Somalia'' has become a synonym for ``debacle.'' The casualties suffered by troops battling Somali militia, followed by a congressional uproar and withdrawal of most US personnel, made the whole experience look like an example of post-cold-war overreaching - a humanitarian intervention too far.
This image has only been reinforced by events in Somalia since US participation in United Nations peacekeeping there ended in March. Factional fighting in Mogadishu is increasing, with the security situation now so bad that the White House may soon withdraw remaining US personnel.
But some real good was accomplished by the US going into Somalia, claim ex-US officials who were involved in the effort. The original introduction of US troops broke a cycle of famine and saved countless lives.
Operation Restore Hope also provided valuable lessons applicable to future peacekeeping operations, claim the former officials in a report on their experience.
Learning from mistakes
``The real lessons of Somalia create reasonable hope that can be built upon in making humanitarian intervention and assertive peacekeeping wise and steady tools in managing international crises,'' says the report by the US Institute of Peace.
Right now the situation in Somalia, especially the capital of Mogadishu, looks dire. Civil war is on the verge of reigniting as militia leaders stockpile arms. The 18,000 UN peacekeepers remaining in the country are focusing on the protection of UN and relief personnel and relief convoys, while skirting clan violence as much as possible. Political reconciliation is moving at a ``glacially slow pace,'' Assistant Secretary of State George Moose told Congress last week. The 20 remaining US diplomats and their platoon of Marine protectors may be withdrawn at any moment.
But rebuilding is proceeding in many outlying areas of a country that was a complete disaster in November 1992 when then-President Bush ordered the US expedition into Somalia. Famine had reached such proportions two years ago that in the southern city of Baidoa the death rate was 300 per day.
The insertion of large numbers of US troops broke the famine-chaos vicious cycle, said Chester Crocker, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, at a recent seminar in Washington.
Lives saved for two years