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Somalia's Lessons

The tendency has been to hold Somalia up as an example of failed international intervention. But the East-African country might more accurately be remembered as a particularly tragic example of post-colonial, post-cold-war political implosion.

The man who epitomized Somalia's peculiar brand of chaos, Mohamed Farah Aideed, is now out of the picture, having died of wounds suffered during a run-in with rival clansmen. His passing raised hopes of peace. Aideed's main antagonists last week called for a cease-fire and talks.

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But the self-proclaimed president's south Mogadishu faction, now headed by Aideed's son, showed little interest. The younger Aideed, Hussein, lived in the US for years and, ironically, served with the Marines in Somalia for a short time. He is thought to be more inclined toward compromise than his father was.

Without some move for compromise, the chaos that predated the US-led UN intervention, simmered during it, and resurfaced after could persist - inflicting further tragedy on the Somali people. The mass starvation that once caught the world's attention has ended, but international relief agencies worry about a recurrence. The chaotic conditions that allowed famine to take hold have only marginally improved.

The intervention that ended so tragically in 1993 for the United States, with 18 American troops killed as they tried to hunt down Aideed, did in fact save the lives of thousands of starving Somalis. But it overreached when it tried to address the country's endemic political chaos by removing one of the key perpetrators.

Somalia's lessons are still being learned - most notably the need for realistic assessments of what's possible. The wrong lesson would be an unthinking avoidance of any international intervention that might lead to "mission creep" - and, especially, a leeriness of humanitarian missions in turbulent parts of the world where the are most needed.

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