The Ambivalent US Foreign Policy Toward Somalia


US foreign policy towards Somalia has been ambivalent since the latter’s independence in 1960. Eager to establish direct relations with the nation that inspired this newly born one that many consider Africa’s first Western style democracy, President Aden Abdulle Osman dispatched a delegation led by his Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke to the United States for a meeting with President John F. Kennedy and his administration.

Unfortunately, the Somali delegation did not achieve its intended objective. The US had already established a warm relationship that it was not willing to sacrifice with Ethiopia- Somalia’s neighbor and a rival nation. Anecdotally, the advice given by the Kennedy Administration was that Somalia better deal with her former colonial masters such as Italy and Great Britain.

Disappointed but determined, the Somali delegation flew straight from Washington, DC to Moscow, establishing a Military and Diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union. A relationship that would subsequently ensure the Soviets the strategic military base they needed in the port of Berberra.

Then unexpectedly, in 1977 and in the midst of the war with Ethiopia over the Somali ethnic region of Ogadenia, the Soviets switched sides establishing a Military and Diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia. Somalia reciprocated by severing all diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and has once again in desperation turned to United States of America.

President Jimmy Carter’s Administration developed relationship with Somalia in the ’80s and the signed treaty providing the US the military base in the port of Berberra in the northwestern region of Somalia.

As a country located in a strategically important geographical area, Somalia became a needed counterpart to counter the Soviet military buildup in Ethiopia. These two superpowers, contributed military buildup in both of these African countries, regardless of the human rights abuses of the military regimes in both countries. This however, has helped United States win the cold war against the Soviet Union.

Currently, there is the perception that Somalia can once again play an essential and strategic role in helping the US counter China, the economic giant of Asian that has become the super power that is currently using soft power instead of military power to win the hearts and the minds of the people. Such soft power is being implemented throughout African countries. Unfortunately, the US is preoccupied with the war on terror and the two current wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Somali Diaspora, and in particular the Somali-Americans, are in a position to support the US to establish a meaningful relationship with Somalia. A diplomatic relationship that can help stabilize Somalia, ending its two decade of misery and a one that can at the same time repair America’s image in the region and the Islamic world. The US lost Somalia to Russia in 1960s and there is a high probability that it will lose Somalia this time as well to extremists.

Today more than ever before, the Somali Americans are pushing for the US to cooperate with Somalia, and for the US to build a good relationship between these two countries that they love. The Diaspora is willing to work with the Obama Administration to bring stability and lasting peace to Somalia. Thus, the US administration must abandon the habit of consulting everybody and anybody including those that want to balkanize Somalia into welfare mini clan-based states and instead engage the government that represents the Somali nation state.

The Bush Administration’s failed policy that encouraged the invasion of Ethiopia and the crushing of the Islamic Courts Union-and entity that brought six months of semblance of peace-is not a policy that can be duplicated or sustained! That invasion has killed approximately 23,000 civilians of mostly women and children, and displaced over a million civilians, thus paving the way to the worst anti-Americanism in the region. The failed US policy in the 1990s and the tacit support of the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 created more extremists than ever seen in Somalia before. Therefore, it is the responsibility of not only of the Somalis but that of the US government to help Somalia find peace and end the engagement of all and everyone who has a gun and claims to be dominant in a specific region. The Obama Administration should do better for Africa, and in particular for Somalia, than his predecessor who used war on terror policy towards Somalia eliminate the grass-roots found initiative that could have been used as a positive model to build on.

The President’s Cairo Speech and the most recent Jakarta speech provided an opportunity to extend an olive branch to the Muslim World, including Somalia. A starting point will be revisiting the recently unveiled US Dual-Track policy.

While this new approach rewards Somalia’s peaceful regions with economic incentive, over all, this Dual-Tract approach is the wrong medicine for Somalia as it would increase negative clan competition; unless, of course, this incentive perpetually remains available. However, Asst. Secretary of State Mr. Johnnie Carson said “…we decided what to do… and we’ll reserve the right to change this policy”. The hope is that the US will reverse its seemingly haphazard policy and engage Somalia with a policy that is good for both nations. This policy resembles Ethiopia’s Dual-Track policy toward Somalia that armed and financed all that wanted to disrupt peace and carved the nation, and further divides and polarize the people and the country.

It is high time for the US to change its course and help bring a lasting peace to Somalia. And lastly, President Obama should appoint a high caliper special envoy to Somalia. And Somali Americans will on their part work diligently to end the carnage in Somalia. However, they need to see commitment and good faith from the Obama Administration.

Mohamed Ali is the Chairman of Somali American Peace Council (SAPC).

By Mohamed Ali