Since the end of the Persian Gulf War, pressure has mounted to involve the United Nations in a growing number of countries that are experiencing internal civil strife. Somalia is the paradigm case. It is therefore extremely important to clarify the historical decision–making record. What President Bush originally decided and what the Clinton administration later did represent fundamentally divergent approaches.

The Bush administration sent U.S. troops into Somalia strictly to clear the relief channels that could avert mass starvation. It resisted U.N. attempts to expand that mission. The Clinton administration, however, set about pioneering "assertive multilateralism" and efforts at nation–building that led to the violence and embarrassment that ultimately ensued. These failures raise larger questions about the United Nations’ competence in more ambitious areas of peace enforcement and nation–building, especially without enduring commitments from the United States.


The legitimation of U.N. involvement in internal strife evolved as an extension of the duty to preserve international security. The turning point came after the Gulf War, when the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 688 on April 5, 1991. Faced with massive flows of Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq into Turkey and Iran and harsh military assaults against Shiites in southern Iraq, the council acted swiftly. For the first time, the Security Council declared that a member government’s repression of its own people, resulting in urgent humanitarian needs, constituted a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 688 condemned the government of Iraq, demanded that it immediately end its repression, insisted that Iraq "allow immediate access by international humanitarian organizations," and requested that the secretary–general pursue humanitarian efforts.

Clearly, large refugee flows with potentially destabilizing effects on Turkey’s control over parts of its territory justified the U.N. assessment. This action nonetheless constituted U.N. intervention in an essentially domestic conflict—an area that the text of the U.N. Charter leaves unclear. In an artfully balanced passage Article 2 provides: "Nothing in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. . . ." But the charter then goes on to state, "This principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII." Although ambiguous to say the least, Article 2 implies that an internal dispute must threaten interests outside a country’s borders before the Security Council’s jurisdiction can be invoked. But the precedent set in Iraq had left the principle of U.N. nonintervention substantially weakened.

Then came Somalia. The Security Council achieved little progress in early and mid–1992 brokering a ceasefire among the warring clans and subclans. General Mohamed Farah Aideed rejected the deployment of peacekeepers (the U.N Operation in Somalia, or UNOSOM) until fall. By not deploying UNOSOM, the secretary–general followed standard peacekeeping procedures: no "blue helmets" would be deployed unless all parties consented. The result was that the civil war in Somalia continued unabated, humanitarian assistance could not be delivered, thousands of Somalis died of disease and starvation, and the threat to hundreds of thousands more grew daily. So weak was the international presence that Somali gangs freely attacked U.N. facilities, stealing trucks, food, and fuel supplies.

When a 500–man Pakistani battalion was finally deployed in early October 1992, it was pinned down at the Mogadishu airport. General Aideed later took offense that the United Nations had negotiated with the Hawadle subclan for security at the airport rather than directly with him. Convinced that the United Nations was predisposed against him, Aideed objected to the deployment of 3,000 additional peacekeepers authorized by Security Council Resolution 775. Fighting throughout Somalia led other troop contributors, such as Canada and Belgium, to defer sending their forces since there was obviously no peace to keep. (Earlier in 1992 a top aide to Aideed had said that if armed U.N. forces were sent in, coffins should be sent as well.)

In November, State Department careerists argued for dispatching a major U.N. military force--including American troops--to Somalia to distribute humanitarian assistance directly. The Pentagon proposed that a U.S.–led coalition outside of the United Nations distribute aid, the expectation being that the United Nations would replace U.S. forces after a very short time. On November 25 President Bush approved this option, provided that the secretary–general also agreed.

That afternoon, the Security Council had met to consider a very pessimistic report on Somalia. The secretary–general wrote that "the situation is not improving" and that conditions were so bad that it would be "exceedingly difficult" for the United Nations’ existing operation in Somalia to achieve its objectives. "[I]t may become necessary," the report said, "to review the basic premises and principles of the United Nations effort in Somalia"--a thinly veiled reference to a complete withdrawal of U.N. personnel.

Against this foreboding backdrop, Acting Secretary of State Lawrence S Eagleburger presented the Bush plan to Boutros–Ghali. The United States was prepared to deploy up to 30,000 troops (including troops from other nations) to secure key ports, airports, roads and aid distribution centers in central and southern Somalia. This carefully circumscribed mission was intended to stabilize the military situation only to the extent needed to avert mass starvation, and the United States expected to hand the matter back to the United Nations in three to four months. What the United States was proposing was more than sending in several hundred trucks and drivers to distribute aid, but less than pacification and occupation. The United States would conduct the mission peacefully but was prepared to use "harsh" force if necessary to prevent interference with its objectives. Eagleburger stressed that the United States would not proceed if the secretary–general opposed the plan.

Boutros–Ghali asked whether the U.S. deployment would be a U.N. operation or under American command. Eagleburger responded unequivocally that the United States would command. Boutros–Ghali then asked what would happen after President Clinton’s inauguration on January 20, 1993. Eagleburger stressed that the United States was prepared to proceed now; if Clinton disagreed, all American forces would be withdrawn by January 19. Boutros–Ghali was positive about the plan, saying "such a force could obtain stability very quickly. I know Somalia. I have been there many times."

There was no consideration of disarming the various Somali factions. There was no discussion of a U.S. presence in the northern secessionist region of "Somaliland." Finally, there was no mention whatever of "nation–building." President Bush authorized and Eagleburger proposed to the secretary–general an American–led operation limited in mandate, time, and geographical scope.


After a Thanksgiving weekend of intense activity, on November 29 the secretary–general offered the Security Council five options on "how to create conditions for the uninterrupted delivery of relief supplies to the starving people of Somalia." The first three options were to intensify efforts to deploy UNOSOM fully under existing U.N. rules of engagement, to withdraw all UNOSOM military elements and let the humanitarian agencies make the best deals possible with the warlords, or to have UNOSOM mount a show of force in Mogadishu to convince the warlords to take the U.N. effort seriously. Boutros–Ghali discounted these options.

The secretary–general’s fourth option was essentially the American proposal of a U.N.–authorized action of member states, although he expanded it into a nationwide "enforcement operation." The enabling resolution he suggested would give authorization for only "a specific period of time," and only in order to "resolve the immediate security problem." The fifth option--and the secretary–general’s explicit preference--was "a countrywide enforcement operation to be carried out under United Nations command and control."

Reactions to the American proposal and the secretary–general’s letter were sometimes confused, but the permanent members of the Security Council moved swiftly to draft a resolution authorizing the American operation. During this week, for the first time, the secretariat began urging that the coalition essentially disarm the Somali factions before handing the operation back to the United Nations. The United States declined to make any such commitment. Thus, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 794 on December 3, 1992, reflecting the approach Eagleburger originally proposed. The preamble said the Security Council’s goal was to establish "as soon as possible the necessary conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance." To accomplish this, the Security Council drew upon Chapter VII of the charter, authorizing the participating states to use "all necessary means." Fully intending the coalition military effort to be brief, the Security Council requested the secretary–general to submit a plan within 15 days for turning the operation over to the United Nations.

The next day, President Bush wrote to the secretary–general: "I want to emphasize that the mission of the coalition is limited and specific: to create security conditions which will permit the feeding of the starving Somali people and allow the transfer of this security function to the U.N. peacekeeping force." The president also wrote that U.S. "objectives can, and should, be met in the near term. As soon as they are, the coalition force will depart from Somalia, transferring its security function to your U.N. peacekeeping force." The U.S. position, in both the council’s resolution and the president’s letter, was clear.

American forces entered Somalia on December 9. Later that day, however, the secretary–general told a delegation from Washington sent to brief the secretariat that he wanted the coalition not only to disarm all of the Somali factions, but also to defuse all mines in the country (most mines were in the secessionist north), set up a civil administration and begin training civilian police. The secretary–general also conveyed these ideas in a letter to President Bush. While the United States had contemplated some disarming to protect its troops, the secretary–general clearly had far more ambitious plans. Adding these new tasks would undoubtedly mean lengthening the U.S. stay in Somalia, thus delaying a handoff to U.N. peacekeepers.

Within days, numerous press stories revealed a growing rift between Washington and the United Nations. Secretariat officials were apparently concerned about the policy of the incoming Clinton administration toward Somalia. In a meeting with the secretary–general on December 22, Secretary Eagleburger reiterated that the United States saw its mission as very limited, and he stated a desire to work cooperatively with the secretariat to facilitate the hand–over to "UNOSOM II." When the hand–over took place, he said, the United States was prepared to entertain specific requests for logistical support, but that was all.

As in the first meeting between Eagleburger and Boutros–Ghali, what was not discussed is as important as what was discussed. Again, no discussion of nation-building or anything remotely like it took place. There was considerable conversation about what UNOSOM II would actually look like. The secretariat foresaw something very like a traditional, small–scale U.N. peacekeeping operation. Department of Defense officials believed that such an approach would not work and wanted a much more muscular operation. This dispute was largely a clash between the military cultures of the United Nations and the Pentagon. The point, however, is that both sides were trying to define UNOSOM II so that the hand–over could proceed as swiftly and efficiently as possible. The United States was not discussing extending its mandate either in scope or in time.

As the Bush administration came to a close, humanitarian assistance was regularly flowing to critical areas. Mediation efforts were progressing, with all major factions agreeing to a conference on national reconciliation in mid–March. U.S. forces were already withdrawing, replaced by troops from other nations. Many of these nations would automatically become part of UNOSOM II when the handoff took place. Thus, by January 20, while Somalia was by no means solved, the original plan and schedule were still on track.


The Clinton administration entered office determined to concentrate on domestic policy, but it had also campaigned for a foreign policy that became known as "assertive multilateralism." Nonetheless, in its early days, the new administration continued to press the United Nations for a rapid hand–over to UNOSOM II, although some advocated that a substantial U.S. logistical presence remain. They were still skeptical that the United Nations was up to the job--continuing evidence of the clash of military cultures between the Pentagon and the secretariat. By late February, fighting among the Somali factions and with the international force led some U.S. officials to believe an even larger American contingent needed to remain to assist the United Nations.

These were the first signs that the original plan--to be out within three or four months--was changing. The real shift, however, came on March 26, when the Security Council adopted Resolution 814, largely because of American pressure. The resolution called on the secretary–general’s special representative "to assume responsibility for the consolidation, expansion, and maintenance of a secure environment throughout Somalia." The resolution also requested that the secretary–general seek financing for "the rehabilitation of the political institutions and economy of Somalia." The new U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright, said unequivocally, "With this resolution, we will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations." Not only did the Clinton administration endorse "nation–building" in Resolution 814, it contemplated that 8,000 American logistical troops would remain, along with a 1,000–man quick–reaction force, a major change from the original idea of essentially complete withdrawal. The initial cost now was estimated at $800 million, of which the United States would be assessed just under a third. There was little or no consultation with Congress about this major change in direction, and very little press reporting. The actual hand–over to UNOSOM II dragged on until May 4.

Only weeks afterward, violence broke out again in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. On June 5, forces believed to be under the command of General Aideed attacked UNOSOM II, killing at least 23 Pakistani peacekeepers and wounding scores more. Acting swiftly, the Security Council adopted Resolution 837 on June 6, authorizing the arrest of Aideed and others responsible for the attack. U.S. combat forces returned to strike positions believed to be held by Aideed followers. There was again little or no consultation with Congress.

These two resolutions, coming in the early days of the Clinton administration, marked a pronounced shift in American policy. This was not simply "mission creep" into another international quagmire, but a deliberate experiment in "assertive multilateralism." Now the United States had done more than commit itself to the vague and expansive language of the "nation–building" resolution. Through Admiral Jonathan Howe, the American serving as the secretary–general’s new special representative--a strong advocate of punitive action against Aideed--the United Nations had effectively taken sides against Aideed in retaliation for the ambush of the Pakistani peacekeepers, thus making it simply another armed Somali faction. The United Nations lost its role as an honest broker by militarily opposing Aideed. Nation–building was to be complicated enough, but the U.N.–U.S. force was now going to have to attempt that project under combat conditions, at least in Mogadishu. Nonetheless, Admiral Howe remained confident; he was quoted in Newsweek on July 12 saying, "We’re going to do the job, and the rest of the country will follow."

Military operations continued throughout the summer, sometimes directed against civilians, usually accompanied by statements about Aideed’s forces having been badly damaged. Now, however, members of Congress began to stir; Senate President pro tem Robert C. Byrd (D–W.Va.) called for the withdrawal of American forces, referring specifically to President Bush’s plan for only a very brief American humanitarian mission. U.S. and U.N. casualties mounted, and Aideed remained at large. More U.S. forces were committed, including elite Ranger units.

Despite these problems, the Clinton administration held steadfast to its broad policy objectives. In a major address on August 27, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said: "We went there to save a people, and we succeeded. We are staying there now to help those same people rebuild their nation." He added, "President Clinton has given us clear direction to stay the course with other nations to help Somalia," thus removing any earlier doubts that the president was not fully engaged with his administration’s policy.

"Stay the course" is exactly what the administration did, despite the parade of headlines announcing new casualties and growing, bipartisan congressional concerns. In the single most compelling piece of evidence of its continued commitment to its redefinition of the mission, the administration pushed the Security Council to adopt Resolution 865 on September 22, effectively locking in a "nation–building" U.N. presence in Somalia until at least 1995. That resolution reaffirmed the Security Council’s endorsement of continuing "the process of national reconciliation and political settlement" begun earlier. The resolution stressed that the highest priority for UNOSOM II was to assist "in the furtherance of the national reconciliation process and to promote and advance the re-establishment of regional and national institutions and civil administration in the entire country" as outlined in the original "nation–building" resolution, 814. Three days later, Somali militiamen shot down a Black Hawk helicopter, killing three Americans. All of these events were taking place in the context of confused administration efforts (culminating in the president’s September 27 speech to the General Assembly) to articulate more fully what its larger peacekeeping policies actually were.

By this point, the White House was clearly worried, but not worried enough to avert the October 3 disaster in which at least 17 Americans were killed, and many more wounded, in a fierce firefight in Mogadishu. One American was taken hostage, and one of his deceased comrades was dragged naked through the capital’s streets, appearing in media pictures around the world. This time, bipartisan congressional anger erupted, and the Clinton administration’s efforts to defend itself failed. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 7 that lawmakers who attended a congressional briefing on October 5 said Secretary Aspin was "confused and contradictory" and that Warren Christopher "sat virtually silent." The administration immediately reached for new options, deciding to double the total American military presence in Somalia and offshore, while announcing the intention to withdraw entirely by March 31, 1994. "Nation–building" had thus become a desperate search for a face–saving American withdrawal, exactly one year after Americans would have departed under President Bush’s original plan


Certain key judgments emerge from the record of the American intervention in Somalia to date:

First, the original, limited mission proposed by President Bush was deliberately and consciously expanded by the Clinton administration. Although incrementalism marks most foreign policy decision–making, the shift in American policy in March and June 1993 was deliberate, and it reflected what Clinton’s national security decision–makers believed was consistent with the president’s broad policy outlines.

Second, the role the Clinton administration envisioned for the United Nations in Somalia was a "peace enforcement" role, akin to the original American-led coalition mandate, rather than a more traditional "peacekeeping" role. Whether the United Nations was ready for such a role is now very much open to question But more is at stake than the competence of the United Nations. We must now question whether in fact it is sensible to ask the United Nations to engage in peace enforcement when the principal military muscle for such an operation is unable politically to sustain the risks and casualties that peace enforcement necessarily entails. The Clinton policy expanded the U.N. role dramatically but brought the United States to the verge of withdrawing without having seen that larger role through successfully. Many of the same arguments have recently been raised about Clinton administration policy in Bosnia and Haiti. This reflects no credit on the United States.

Third, whatever the real meaning of "assertive multilateralism," that policy died an early death in Somalia. U.S. experience there demonstrates the hard truth that the United Nations works only when the United States leads the organization to a final conclusion. There is no multilateral system with a life and will of its own There is only leadership by one or more like–minded nations that persuades the United Nations’ other members to follow. Within the U.S. system, Congress wants American leadership--whether through the United Nations or otherwise—only where clear American national interests are at stake.

Finally, we must now ask whether a United States–led coalition can truly hand over an operation to the United Nations and then withdraw. A distinct minority within the Bush administration was skeptical of the original American deployment precisely because of concern that it would be much easier to get into Somalia than to get out. The real lesson of the American experience in attempting to relieve the famine in Somalia is that any administration must play out the long-range consequences even of humanitarian decisions because of the complex political and military consequences inevitably entailed. Somalia was the wrong place at the wrong time for the Clinton administration to experiment. The American dead prove that point.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • John R. Bolton is a Washington attorney and was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations in the Bush administration.
  • More By John R. Bolton