By Francis Northwood (PO ’21)
With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, it is an appropriate time to recall a forgotten success of his administration. Towards the end of his presidency, he was faced with a grave humanitarian crisis oversees. In 1992, Somalia was in the midst of a terrible civil war. The U.S. led United Task Force—code-named Operation Restore Hope— was assigned with humanitarian aid in response to the war. The force, led by the United States and made up of UN-sanctioned forces, militarily defended the delivery of aid into war-torn Somalia. The United Task Force ended up being a shining example of successful American interventionism.
Normally, a civil war might entail two distinct sides, but instead, the Somali civil war involved smaller military factions fighting each other in a larger power vacuum. This power vacuum disabled the U.S. and the UN from allying themselves with a specific side. The United Nations began their activities in Somalia with the United Nations Operation in Somalia 1 (UNOSOM 1). As part of this initiative, the U.N. sponsored the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalis in need. With the power vacuum being filled by Somali Warlords, UNOSOM 1 proved ineffective.
UNOSOM 2 did not follow in UNOSOM 1’s path. The U.N. created UNOSOM 2 which entailed the United States and its Commander-In-Chief spearheading the operation and the United Task Force taking over the operation and militarily facilitating the delivery of aid. Through realizing that indirect distribution would be funneled away by warlords, the U.N. and U.S. took a more direct approach. They created their own system of delivery, and their own infrastructure to facilitate this. To note, however, the United States’ major troop contribution was contingent upon their—and not the UN’s—control of those troops.
There were immediate criticisms of the United States’ activities in Somalia. Suspicions arose as to whether the United States’ micromanagement of the American forces indicated an interest in controlling oil in the region. These criticisms were never substantiated, as U.S. troops and activities never came close to the oil exploration areas in the north (nearly all of UNOSOM 1 and UNOSOM 2 activities were in the east).
The success of UNOSOM 2 stems in large part from the lives saved. While estimates vary wildly regarding how many lives the mission in Somalia saved, the estimates range from tens of thousands to over a million. Despite the tragic death of 43 Americans, the American involvement in Somalia was a definitive success. Despite this, the media portrayed the U.S. in Somalia differently. With the incredibly popular film Black Hawk Down and the graphic mutilation of Americans, the Americans public saw a gruesome narrative of failure and uninvited humanitarian aid and not the pro-American demonstrations in Mogadishu. This media portrayal and general perceptions of the Somali affair carried into a lack of humanitarian action in the immediate future—most notably Rwanda. Humanitarian action which could have had very positive results. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda asked for a relatively small contingent of troops to help with aid but was immediately rejected in large part due a worldwide sentiment that Somalia had been a failure and further militarily-aided humanitarian action would fail. While contemplating about what more troops of Rwanda could’ve done might seem futile, looking to Somalia, one might see the potential success of such an idea.
George H.W. Bush led American involvement and American leadership in Operation Restore Hope during the lame duck stage of his presidency. This makes it evident that Bush did not do it on political grounds and did it not for the purpose of reelection. George H.W. Bush was in charge of this decision to act in Somalia and would end up facing a lot of flak for what was long seen as a definite failure, but it is key to take a look at such revisionist histories as the supposed failure in Somalia. While the loss of American volunteer troops in Somalia is a tragedy, Somalia was objectively a human rights success. A success that perhaps should be used as a model for humanitarian intervention.