Somalia, Redux: A More Hands‐​Off Approach

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The two-decade-old conflict in Somalia hasentered a new phase, which presents both a challengeand an opportunity for the United States.The elections of new U.S. and Somali presidentsin late 2008 and early 2009 provide an opportunityto reframe U.S.-Somali relations. To bestencourage peace in the devastated country,Washington needs a new strategy that takes intoaccount hard-learned lessons from multiplefailed U.S. interventions. The old strategy favoringmilitary force and reflexive opposition to allIslamists should give way to one emphasizingregional diplomacy and at least tacit acceptanceof a government that is capable of bringing orderto Somalia.

Whatever the Obama administration's approachto Somalia, it must avoid the failures ofthe Bush administration. The rise of a popular,moderate Islamic government in 2006 sparked anEthiopian invasion, for which the United Statesprovided key backing. Washington defended itssupport of the Ethiopian attack on the groundsthat Somalia's Islamic Courts regime was activelyharboring known members of al Qaeda, a claimthat appears to have been exaggerated.

The resulting Ethiopian occupation of Somalia—in which as many as 16,000 people died—collapsedin early 2009 against the backdrop of one ofthe world's worst sustained humanitarian crises.Taking advantage of the political and economicchaos, hundreds of desperate Somali fishermenturned to piracy, making the waters off Somaliathe world's most dangerous for seafarers.

With the Islamists' return to power earlier thisyear, under the banner of the new president,Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Washington has a rarechance to reset bilateral relations. The Obamaadministration should work to build a regionalframework for reconciliation, the rule of law, andeconomic development that acknowledges theunique risks of intervention in East Africa.

Somalia's best hope for peace is the moderateIslamic government that has emerged from themost recent rounds of fighting, despite earlyopposition from the United States and its allies.There are ways in which the United States couldhelp Somalia escape its cycle of violence andpeacefully encourage progress by working withthis former enemy, but Washington should erron the side of nonintervention.

David Axe

David Axe is a freelance military correspondent based in South Carolina and the author of War Fix.