Wrong Turn in Somalia

Courtesy Reuters


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

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