Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 17, 2013

Somalian Pirates, Canadian Oil, FDR, and Other Linkage


1. In Reason, Michael Maren has a piece (“Why Somalia matters”) reviewing a book by James Fergusson, The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia (Amazon, Powell’s). Maren writes:

The subtleties of clan rivalry—as complex as any family relationships—were lost on many when the world intervened during the famine of the early 1990s. These details, the root causes of gun battles and alliances that tore the country apart, were usually cut from news reporting by editors who thought it too arcane to keep readers engaged. Fergusson doesn’t shy away from those data, but he also avoids getting all wonky about his newly gained knowledge as well. First and foremost, he is an engaging storyteller with a fine eye for a telling detail. We see through his narrative how these clan divisions might explain the political fracturing of the nation over the past two decades as well as the breakdown of clan authority that has led to the rise of sharia courts and then the dangerous al-Shabaab.


Some of the other insightful material in the book comes from his interviews with the youth of the Somali diaspora London and Minneapolis. Both cities have become recruiting grounds for militants, and Fergusson’s interviews bring us close to the kids who might indeed become the next generation of terrorists and the Somali community leaders who are trying hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. In London, for example, imams host a phone-in radio show to give kids advice on how to live like a good Muslim in the West.

I recalled this review (from July) when I read the news that Doctors Without Borders is ceasing all operations in Somalia and pulling out its personnel because the risks to its doctors and staff have reached an intolerable level:

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières/MSF) has been working in Somalia since 1991, but today the organization announced it is leaving the country because of “extreme attacks on its staff.”

According to a statement released by MSF, the decision to withdraw from Somalia came about because civilian leaders “support, tolerate or condone the killing, assaulting and abducting” of aid workers.

In all, 16 MSF staff members have been killed while working in Somalia, and dozens of the organization’s ambulances and medical facilities have been attacked.

Reason also has a Q&A-style article on the subject of Somali pirates. An excerpt:

The idea that we could sweep in, destroy the pirates’ infrastructure, and consider the problem solved vastly overestimates both the extent and the importance of any particular organization’s infrastructure. Let me say it again: The Somali coastline is 2,000 miles long. Pirates have shifted their bases of operation before—since 2007, for example, most of their activity has moved from the waters near Mogadishu towards the breakaway statelet of Puntland. They could easily pull up stakes again. And if you do eliminate one group of criminals, you still haven’t eliminated or even, in the long run, reduced the crime. Think of the drug war: The authorities are sometimes able to break up particular gangs or cartels, but the profit motive that drives people into the drug business is still there, so other gangs and cartels take their place. At best, you’ll be playing a game of whack-a-mole. At worst, you’ll also be whacking a lot of civilians in the process.

Some history:

So if you don’t send the Marines, what do you send? Aid? Nation-building advisors?

The wise men in Washington are no better equipped at remolding Somali society than they are at remolding the auto industry. The aid we have sent there over the last few decades has almost invariably ended up boosting the power of one local faction or another.

Somalia is capable of producing for itself; it’s just that poor governance and civil strife periodically get in the way. Unfortunately, the U.S. has done much more to foster that poor governance and fan that civil strife than to end them. The evidence of this goes all the way back to the 1970s, when, for reasons related to the Cold War, the Ford administration started sponsoring a brutal military regime run by a self-proclaimed Marxist, Siad Barre.

Hold on. If this was part of the Cold War, why were we siding with a Marxist?

Somalia’s great rival was Ethiopia, and Ethiopia had just joined the Soviet bloc.

Did Barre change his ways when he started getting U.S. aid?

He and his representatives deployed a different set of platitudes when begging from their benefactors. But the basic structure of the Somali state stayed the same. It didn’t have much to do with either socialism or capitalism as a set of principles: The regime was a kleptocracy in which those who had political pull stole from those who did not. The old tribal structure adjusted itself to the new political context. Now one subclan could expropriate a chunk of land from another, start a “project” on it, and present it to the international community as aid-worthy “economic development.”

After Barre was overthrown in 1991, such interclan battles stopped being subsumed within the system and spilled out into the open. Figures once called bureaucrats were now called warlords. But the civil strife of the early 1990s was essentially the same process carried out in a bloodier way.

And that’s when the United States and United Nations sent in soldiers?

Yes. As we all know, that didn’t go well.

But when the troops pulled out, didn’t everything go to pot?

You’ve got it backwards. The U.S./U.N. intervention made things worse: It undercut local farmers by dumping free food into circulation, herded self-reliant nomads into disease-ridden refugee camps, and disarmed civilians while leaving the warlords’ stockpiles largely untouched.

2. Adrienne LeBas has a post at Duck of Minerva about recent elections in Zimbabwe.

3. Steve Saideman asks: Does Canada have a resource curse? (Hint: No.)

4. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on Russia’s “absurd” justice system.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt-1941

5. Michael Fullilove has an article in Slate about “Why FDR shunned the State Department and instead sent friends and cronies on important diplomatic missions.” An excerpt:

Settled lines were not Roosevelt’s style. On foreign policy, this proclivity was strengthened by his distrust of the State Department. The career men in the diplomatic service were mainly Republicans, he believed, and out of step with his policies, being disinclined toward interference in the European conflict. His confidants agreed. Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes felt the department was “undemocratic in its outlook” and “shot through with fascism.” Harry Hopkins hooted that foreign service officers were “cookie pushers, pansies—and usually isolationists to boot.” Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR is supposed to have joked that his State Department was neutral in this war and he hoped it would at least remain that way.

Aside from ideological misgivings, FDR found the State Department to be a poor instrument for his purposes. “You should go through the experience of trying to get any changes in the thinking, policy, and action of the career diplomats and then you’d know what a real problem was,” he told one visitor. On the day he died, he reviewed a letter prepared for his signature and observed with a laugh, “A typical State Department letter—it says nothing at all.” He felt the department was littered with “dead wood.” He had little faith in the security of its cables, leading him to conduct many of his communications with foreign leaders via naval channels. On top of all that, FDR shared the public conception of diplomats as effete dandies—the “boys in the striped pants.” Other White House terms of abuse for foreign service officers included “old maids” and “stuffed shirts.”

FDR never sought seriously to reform the State Department: Instead, he sidelined it. He asked his key ambassadors to stay in touch with him via personal letters. Wherever possible, he cultivated personal relationships with crowned heads and other foreign leaders. In June 1939, for instance, he delighted in hosting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a weekend at his family estate in Hyde Park during their tour of North America. His idea was to increase Americans’ sympathies toward the British—and to stiffen British spines. “Roosevelt set the stage for their reception with the care and gusto of a Broadway director,” observed historian James MacGregor Burns. He deliberately treated the royal couple like old family friends, driving them in his Ford (which had been outfitted with custom-made hand controls) to a picnic lunch consisting of hot dogs, baked beans, and strawberry shortcake. Much to his mother’s displeasure, he even served Their Majesties cocktails before dinner. When FDR saw off his visitors at Hyde Park railway station, the crowd sang “Auld Lang Syne.” “Good luck to you!” called the president. “All the luck in the world!”

Franklin Roosevelt was, then, a leader who disliked faceless bureaucracies, distrusted his foreign ministry, craved information, and enjoyed personal diplomacy. If these factors were insufficient to predispose him to the use of personal envoys, there was another: the polio attack in 1921 that paralyzed him from the waist down and forced him to rely, for the sake of political success and his very survival, on family, friends, and aides.

Image Credits: (1) NASA; (2) CIA World Factbook; (3) Wikimedia Commons.


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