Chapter 7: U.S. Policy in Africa in the 1990s

by Walter H. Kansteiner*

For many, Africa was an unlikely place for the United States to begin to define its international role in a post-Cold War world. But as a continent where East-West tensions were often played out in the 1960s-1980s, there is a certain logic that it was also the continent where the U.S. foreign policy-making machinery was tested in the early days of a new world order.

For most Americans, Somalia was a seldom heard of country somewhere on the Dark Continent. Liberia held a similar status except to a few who remembered Liberia as the place where freed American slaves were returned with the help of James Monroe and the American Colonization Society. But these two rather obscure countries, and how the United States Government decided to respond to their crises, offers us two interesting (and very different) examples of the use of force in the 1990s.

On December 4, 1992, President George Bush agreed to send almost 30,000 U.S. military forces to Somalia. The American forces would be dispatched to provide for the delivery of food and other emergency supplies, and the operation would have the full support and blessing of the United Nations (U.N.). In fact, Bush's official and public decision came immediately after the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 794 calling for the U.N. Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to "use all necessary means to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief in Somalia." One week later, U.S. Marines were landing on the beaches of Mogadishu under the spotlights of Dan Rather's CBS "Evening News."

In direct contrast to the Somalia example of a large, swift, and impressive use of force for humanitarian goals is the lesser known Liberia case. In December of 1989, a small band of rebels and criminals crossed the Liberian border from the Ivory Coast and began what was, and still is, a civil war that has claimed the lives of nearly ten percent of the population, displaced most of the rest, and all but destroyed the small West African nation's economic infrastructure. The United States Government did engage in an early diplomatic effort to find a resolution to the Liberian civil war, but a large military intervention was ruled out.

These two case studies have very different historical backdrops, and the two crises came at two very different times in the larger geopolitical context (1990 vs. 1992), but the U.S. Government's response to these African crises, and how policies were developed and implemented, gives us a window into how the American foreign policy structure operates. If Somalia is a study in how the United States led a multilateral intervention in the name of humanitarian assistance, then Liberia is a case of non-intervention. What were the different inputs and how did the policy process unfold in order to bring about such radically different actions--or non-actions--by the U.S. Government?

Principal Inputs

All foreign policy decisions have their unique story, and Somalia and Liberia are no exceptions, but most foreign policy issues are susceptible to some basic influences: the media (particularly television); government bureaucracy (State Department, National Security Council (NSC), Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Agency for International Development (AID), Congress); non-government pressures groups (in the case of Africa, Trans Africa wields an important stick); domestic politics (particularly important in the timing of the Somalia operation); and our allies and multilateral organizations (U.N., Organization of African Unity (OAU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)), all contributed to the decision to intervene in Somalia and not to intervene in Liberia.

U.S. interests and involvement in Somalia began long before President Bush gave the green light to "Operation Restore Hope" in early December 1992. During the Cold War, Somalia held some geopolitical importance, particularly with regard to its proximity to the Middle East. In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union and the United States made a superpower "switch." The United States, which had previously backed Ethiopia, now flipped its support to Somalia. Moscow did the reverse. The port of Berbera was of particular interest to the Soviet Union and then the United States, and both pumped money into building its naval and air infrastructure. But with the end of the Cold War, the Horn of Africa's strategic value significantly declined.

By January 1991, Siad Barre, Somalia's strongman president, had been overthrown and clan warfare was underway. (It is quite ironic that Somalia is one of Africa's few ethnically homogeneous states, yet has succumbed to the same type of tribal or clan rivalry that has destabilized other African states.) By mid-1992, man and nature had combined in war and drought to place nearly one-third of Somalia's seven million people in danger of starvation. During 1992 more than 300,000 Somalis died as a result of malnourishment or violence. By early 1992 the clan war was reaching into every corner of Somalia, and the country was slowly sliding into anarchy.

During 1991 and the early part of 1992, there was little more than the usual State Department and CIA "tracking" of political change in a relatively minor corner of the world. There were no "Deputies Meetings" (a process used in the Bush administration to discuss key foreign policy issues of the day, the meetings were normally chaired by Deputy National Security Adviser Bob Gates, and, later, Jonathan Howe), and no major interdepartmental discussions took place.

In May 1992, a very interesting cable came in from the U.S. embassy in Kenya. Ambassador Smith Hempstone, on a trip to the Kenyan-Somalian border, painted a picture of tragedy, devastation, and pending starvation at very extreme levels. His "Report from Hell" cable caught many in the bureaucracy's attention, partially because Ambassador Hempstone has a journalistic flare from his days as a Washington Times reporter, and partially because regular reports from Somalia had ceased since the January 1991 closure of the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu.

As director for African Affairs at the NSC, I forwarded part of this rather lengthy but interesting cable on to General Scowcroft and President Bush. Within a few days, President Bush returned the cable to me with a number of questions and comments scribbled in the margins. Bush had had an interest in Africa since his numerous visits as vice-president, and Somalia was now clearly on his radar screen.

By the early summer of 1992, Somalia was beginning to get some U.S. media coverage.[1] CNN teams were filing stories and film footage of the starvation that was taking place, particularly in Baidoa and the south-central part of the country. In July 1992, the New York Times ran a front-page story from Baidoa that included photos which led other media to pursue the story. By late summer and into the fall, Somalia was becoming a regular feature on the evening news, a fact not lost on a White House engaged in a political campaign that did not have foreign policy as a major component.

On the Congressional front, Senators Nancy Kassebaum and Paul Simon traveled to Somalia in July 1992, which drew the Congress into the equation. Kassebaum and Simon held hearings on Somalia which contributed to keeping it on a short-list of major foreign policy issues that were being watched by both the Executive and Legislative branches.

Other pressure groups also weighed in, including Randal Robinson's Trans Africa, and well-timed media events by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); one such UNICEF campaign very effectively used the actress Audrey Hepburn as a spokesperson. By the end of July, the U.N. Secretary General also weighed in with Boutros Ghali's report to the Security Council. He openly complained about the West being more interested in "the rich man's war" in Bosnia than the catastrophe in Somalia. A few days after Boutros Ghali's public accusation, the U.N. approved an emergency airlift and the deployment of 500 peacekeepers.

The Bush administration offered to transport the U.N. peacekeepers (mostly Pakistanis) to Somalia in order to get them on the ground quickly to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid, but when it became clear late in August that the U.N. and the non-government organizations (NGOs) on the ground could not deliver food to some of the neediest regions of Somalia, President Bush ordered the U.S. military to begin delivering humanitarian supplies with U.S. aircraft. The August and September airlifts helped in the central and southern regions of Somalia, but by mid-November Mogadishu had crashed into complete anarchy with the airports and port being controlled by bandits and warring clan factions. By the third week of November, no food or humanitarian aid was getting out of Mogadishu.

Ironically, the media was taking less interest in Somalia in November 1992 than they had in August 1992, yet the political, social, and humanitarian situation was far more critical in November. Likewise, Congress had ceased being an input (Capitol Hill was vacant for the elections from early November thru January). Hence, the major inputs that led to President Bush's December 4 decision to launch a military force of nearly 30,000 came from the Executive Branch's foreign policy machinery and, to a lesser extent, the U.N. and our allies. It was only after Bush announced Operation Restore Hope that the media regained any interest in Somalia.

In contrast to Somalia, the key inputs into any decisions on Liberia were far fewer in number and considerably less public.

Soon after Charles Taylor and his rebel forces entered Liberia in late 1989 they began a guerrilla campaign that extended into a large part of the countryside. By mid-1990, Liberia was increasingly making the short-list of foreign policy issues discussed at the Deputy Committee level. Unlike Somalia, there were few media reports, only the occasional piece appearing in the New York Times and Washington Post. The principle input for the Liberian decision-making process was the State Department-NSC-Defense Department-CIA machinery.

There was, however, one rather remarkable BBC report that had startling and gory pictures of the atrocities that all sides of the Liberian civil war engaged in. It was commonly known as the "skirts vs. the wigs tape," because it accurately depicted how the two principle warring factions thoroughly believed in West African juju, or magic. One side routinely wore women's summer dresses and skirts, and the other wore wigs, both in a belief that by wearing such accessories they became bulletproof. The importance of such a documentary is that many of the policymakers viewed this tape (State, Defense, and the NSC all had copies), and it clearly influenced some of the players' attitudes toward and perceptions of the Liberian actors, and thus directly or indirectly influenced their policy decisions.

In the diplomatic community, there was very little input from our allies, as most of the Europeans assumed this was an "American problem" given Liberia's historical and cultural ties to the United States. (The French and British have historically considered Liberia to be "America's only African colony.")

There was only brief interest from the Congress. Senator Kassebaum, with her long-term interest and genuine concern for Africa, raised the Liberia issue with Bush administration officials in late 1990, but her concern received very little Congressional support from either political party.

The Executive Branch policymakers were considering the Liberian situation from a number of different perspectives: Liberia had been a military staging base, and Roberts Field possessed an excellent facility for staging certain military supplies; its relative proximity to Angola had not been lost on many in the U.S. government in years past. Another issue was Libya's role in supporting the Charles Taylor insurgency; the isolation of Libya remained a priority for some of the actors, and the apparent Libyan connection to Taylor was important.

For the policymakers that had responsibility for Africa, Liberia was a concern not only for obvious humanitarian reasons, but also because it threatened to destabilize an entire region. West Africa had enough economic and political problems to contend with. A full blown civil war in Liberia would most likely spill over into the neighboring countries.

Processes and Procedures for Intervention

Both the Somalia and Liberia case studies demonstrate how the U.S. government foreign and policy-making apparatus can function. With Somalia, the process was initially driven by a very open, public awareness and discussion of the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding before the eyes of the television-watching American public. With Liberia, as well as with the later stages of the Somalia case, the process was far less public and essentially played out within the confines of interagency debates that took place on secure phone lines, rather than on CNN television reports.

The first Deputies Meeting on Somalia that focused on possible U.S. intervention was in June 1992. Prior to June, there were interagency meetings, primarily attended by representatives from the State Department, AID, CIA, and Defense Department, that focused on humanitarian relief issues. Somalia's interclan warfare had been extended through the country since the fall of President Siad Barre in early 1991. The humanitarian plight worsened throughout early 1992, and Somalia was on the top of AID's disaster list. Hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies were being shipped by the United States, Europe, Japan, and other donor countries, and AID had the lead role in coordinating the logistics of U.S. government donations. But by the summer of 1992, foreign policymakers within the U.S. government realized that this "normal African humanitarian disaster" was increasingly problematic, and possibly in need of attention that went beyond P.L. 480 food shipments.

The media clearly played an important role in motivating the decision-making process. CNN's pictures of starving Somali children with bloated stomachs and fly-infested feeding camps stoked the fire on which the foreign policy machinery pot was beginning to boil. I do not believe there would have been the intensity of interest on the part of higher-level decisionmakers if there had been no media reports from the starvation fields of Baidoa. It is important, however, to identify the difference between the media raising the consciousness of decisionmakers, and dictating specific policy actions. CNN certainly helped keep the Somalia issue high on the list of foreign policy concerns during the summer of 1992, but it was the policymakers themselves that assessed, formulated, and implemented the August airlift, followed in December by "Operation Restore Hope."

There have been some academic critiques of the Somalia case that suggest that the Bush administration was caught by surprise by Secretary General Boutros Ghali's July 22, 1992 report that accused the Security Council of ignoring Somalia and only being interested in the "rich man's war" in Bosnia. In fact, Boutros Ghali had spoken with both State Department and NSC officials before he released the report, and the U.S. government sympathized with the secretary general's concern for the deteriorating situation in Somalia. In early July 1992, the Bush administration had quietly notified the secretary general's office that the United States was prepared to provide military airlift for humanitarian supplies as well as airlift for peacekeepers that might be necessary in assisting with the delivery of those supplies.

The interagency discussions that resulted in the support of a future U.N. peace-keeping mission (500 Pakistanis to help safeguard the humanitarian efforts) was led by the State Department. There was some initial reluctance on the part of the Defense Department--it was their resources that would be spent--but the Pentagon was readily agreeable when it was made clear that the military's participation would not go beyond airlift. The U.S. military airlifted the Pakistani peacekeepers to Mogadishu and initiated a large-scale food airlift in August.

The starvation that was so vividly portrayed in the CNN report in July began to lessen significantly by the end of August. Large amounts of food and medicine were being successfully shipped and delivered, U.N. peace-keeping forces were continuing to arrive, and Somalia's people were being fed. As the conditions in Somalia improved, the media's interest lessened. The policymakers also took a break; their decisions concerning the airlifts had been successful and Somalia did not need high-level U.S. government attention in September and October. By mid-November, however, conditions on the ground in Somalia were rapidly deteriorating. During the early days of November 1992, the Somali warlords, particularly Mohammed Aideed, began to brazenly hijack humanitarian supplies, both on the roads from Mogadishu to the interior as well as within the city of Mogadishu itself. By the second week of November, the U.N. peacekeepers in Mogadishu (mostly Pakistanis) were bottled up inside the Mogadishu harbor, and the warlords were in effective control of the city, including the port. All humanitarian supplies going into Mogadishu harbor were being off-loaded and stolen by the warlords' men, no supplies were getting through to the interior, and the threat of large-scale starvation re-emerged. On the political front, Mohammed Aideed and Ali Mahdi, and their two warring factions, were terrorizing Mogadishu, not to mention the very visible embarrassment to the U.N. peace-keeping force that was essentially being held hostage by these warlords. (In November 1992, the notion of U.N. blue helmets being held hostage was a far more unique and unacceptable situation than it is today.)

The interagency process back in Washington quickly kicked into gear. The Deputies Committee met every day from November 19-25, examining options and preparing proposals to the NSC advisor and the president.

The State Department, Defense Department, NSC, AID, and CIA were the primary players in the decision-making process. A consensus quickly emerged that the United States was the only international actor that could quickly respond to these crises and effectively break the warlords siege on Mogadishu. The debate that remained was what type and size of force would be needed, and what would be the most opportune time to launch such a mission.

There were, of course, dissenters within the Bush administration. Ambassador Smith Hempstone wrote a cable from Nairobi, Kenya, that suggested that Somalia was nothing more than "a tar baby"; and "if you liked Beirut, you'll love Mogadishu." (This was the same Ambassador Hempstone who sent a cable five months earlier describing the awful plight of the Somali people.) The Hempstone "tar baby" cable was quickly leaked to the Washington press corps, most likely by those in the administration who opposed any military intervention.

But the Deputies Committee was heading for intervention, regardless of leaked cables and a few dissenters. The issues that had to be addressed now focused on how a U.S. military force would interact with the warlords. Should we choose sides, and back one faction over the other? (There were some in the administration that supported this option, citing history in Africa as their rationale.) Could U.S. forces be caught between the warlords' forces? Would U.S. forces be welcomed or resisted?

In the course of those five or six days (November 19-25), most of these general intervention questions began to get answered for the Deputies Committee. The goal of the operation was clear: U.S. forces would break the humanitarian supply logjam in and around Mogadishu. The intervention vehicle would be a U.N.-sponsored resolution, and "Operation Restore Hope" would be a "blessed" operation. The military operation would initially consist of primarily U.S. forces, but a multilateral force would follow shortly behind the U.S. operation.

Shortly after the five-day string of Deputies Meetings, President Bush called for an Oval Office meeting with his top foreign policy advisors to make a final decision on the possible operation in Somalia. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State and Chief of Staff James Baker, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell gathered with the president. President Bush clearly wanted to go forward with the operation, but he wanted to get his top team on board and flesh out any questions or hesitations. The Office of the Vice President (OVP) had raised some important questions in the days leading up to the Oval Office meeting. The OVP questioned how "permissive" the environment would be when the first wave of Marines landed. There were also questions about possibly working with one clan faction over the other. Ultimately, it was decided that the military operation would be "neutral," no side would be favored, and both of the major clans would be consulted with prior to U.S. forces landing on Mogadishu's beaches. (It became U.S. Special Envoy Robert Oakley's task to "work with" the warlords on the ground in preparation for the U.S. intervention.)

The Oval Office meeting discussed how large a force General Powell would need to achieve the goal of getting the humanitarian aid flowing. The Pentagon was often eager to test the policymakers' commitment to an operation, and would usually suggest the higher end of the estimated total number of forces that would be necessary. Any hesitation on the politicians' part would signal to the military a lack of total commitment--something they needed for any U.S. military operation. But in the case of Somalia, the 30,000 force number did not cause any hesitation; President Bush simply asked if the Pentagon was comfortable with that number, and if there might not be a need for larger forces.

The only remaining question was how to coordinate the operation with the U.N., and how quickly the Security Council could pass a resolution approving the use of "all necessary means to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia." The Security Council put the last piece in place when they passed such a resolution on December 3, 1992.

President Bush gave a speech from the Oval Office on December 4 and explained to the American people his reasons for sending U.S. troops to Africa. The next days were used for military preparations and the first wave of the Marines went ashore a week after President Bush's Oval Office speech.

The Liberian decision-making process was quite different, and of far less interest to the American public. It was also far less complex, with fewer actors in Washington involved in the process.

In early 1990, Charles Taylor, a former procurement clerk in the Liberian army, began his insurgency in Nimba County. President Doe sent his army to crush the rebels, and in doing so the Liberian army stirred anti-government sentiment throughout the countryside by indiscriminately attacking villages and murdering civilians. Taylor's band of rebels responded with their own set of atrocities, and the ugly spiral of violence had begun.

The unrest was quickly noted in Washington's Africa "watching circles." An interagency group, chaired by Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Hank Cohen, was convened to review the situation. The State Department, CIA, Defense Department, and NSC were the primary participants.

There was very little media interest, however, and Congress took only casual note. The interagency meetings highlighted various bureaucratic interests and priorities. For the State Department, Liberia was a case screaming for help. With the long American historical link to the country, and its role in the West Africa region, Liberia represented an important country for some at the State Department. The CIA had different interests: Roberts Field Airport had been used for various staging operations in other parts of Africa, and there were certain communications assets in the country. The Defense Department had very little interest in getting involved, and was certainly not interested in spending resources in an area that was hardly considered of strategic importance. The NSC shared Defense's approach.

The State Department called for numerous interagency meetings, including a number of Deputies Committee meetings (most of which took place via secure television). The State Department had a difficult case to make for military involvement. There were no heroes in the Liberian conflict; all sides were committing atrocities, and the role of African juju (magic) was vividly depicted in the much-discussed "wigs vs. skirts" BBC documentary video that was viewed by numerous policymakers. If there was one single significant outside influence in the decision-making process, it was the BBC videotape.

At one point there were some discussions that Charles Taylor might be the lesser of two evils, and perhaps there was a way that the United States could quietly cooperate with him. Opponents of this approach within the administration quickly reminded everyone that Charles Taylor was actually an escaped convict from a Massachusetts prison, and wanted in the United States for embezzlement.

The general policy approach quietly became one of letting the Liberians work out their conflicts themselves, with the United States hoping to steer clear of any involvement.

As the situation in Monrovia deteriorated, and foreign embassies came under threat, the Bush administration decided in late May 1990 to deploy a task force of four U.S. Navy ships to assist in the evacuation of the embassies. There was never a serious consideration to move beyond evacuation assistance; the United States was not going to spend significant time or resources on any type of military intervention in Liberia.


The decision-making process that was used for Somalia and that which was used for Liberia was essentially the same at the initial stages. Liberia, however, never made it to the higher level of decisionmakers; it was "stuck" in the bureaucratic machinery, never reaching any higher than the Deputies Committee. Somalia, on the other hand, was on President Bush's desk early in the crises, and remained an issue that was dealt with by the key decisionmakers in the Bush foreign policy apparatus. Outside influences and factors also contributed to the very different outcomes. The media was never a factor in Liberia but it clearly played a role, particularly in the early stages, in the Somalia case. Congress also had a great deal more interest in Somalia than in Liberia. There were numerous Congressional delegations that visited Somalia, and both the House and Senate held multiple Congressional hearings. Liberia, on the other hand, generated one poorly-attended Congressional hearing, and very little behind-the-scenes pressure on the Executive Branch.

Although these two African crises were only two years apart, their timing was vulnerable to post-Cold War world realities. Somalia came on the heels of a successful multilateral Persian Gulf War effort, while Liberia was occurring in the immediate shadow of the collapse of the Iron Curtain. U.S. domestic political realities were such that the Bush administration was a lame duck government that did not feel bound by political constraints when it came to the Somalia crises. Liberia, on the other hand, came in the early days of the Bush administration and there was a far greater reluctance to use military force in an obscure part of the geo-political world.

From a process perspective, Liberia never made it past a certain threshold that is necessary for top policymakers to focus on an issue. Somalia, on the other hand, was of interest to all senior cabinet members and the president throughout the crises.

[*] Walter H. Kansteiner is a senior associate at The Forum for International Policy and a partner of the Scowcroft Group in Washington, D.C. He has served in various African-related positions at the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council.

[1] See Somalia, by Terrence Lyons and Ahmend Samatur, Brookings Institute, 1992.

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