The Lessons of Somalia: Not Everything Went Wrong

Courtesy Reuters

Under the protection of a U.S. military umbrella, the United Nations extricated itself from Somalia in early March 1995. The exit went well and may serve as a model for pulling U.N. peacekeepers out of the former Yugoslavia and other places where they run into trouble. But what lessons is the United States drawing from the "failed" Somalia enterprise? Is "failure" the right term to describe the U.S. and U.N. military intervention? If so, what is it that failed?

Appraisals of the Somalia operation vary widely. Some disparage it as a media-driven spectacle of misguided internationalism that ignored the pitfalls of intervention in alien places lacking civil order and legitimate political institutions. Some see Somalia as an almost welcome inoculation against the temptation to intervene in places such as Rwanda, while others blame the Somalia operation for sapping U.S. political will and global standing and for inhibiting Americans from doing the right thing in "more important" places like Bosnia. The lesson, in this view, is to refrain from applying global standards and to disengage from the world's strategic slums. Another school views Somalia as an epitaph for multilateralism and an object lesson on the United Nations' inadequacies and the need to limit the U.S. role in U.N. peacekeeping. Still others view Somalia as a laudable step toward a new era in American exceptionalism and humanitarian leadership, which turned sour because the United States became entangled in local politics. The actual lessons, however, are more subtle and more interesting than these one-liners suggest.


The intervention in Somalia was not a failure as measured by the standards first set by President Bush. Much has been accomplished in humanitarian terms, and a larger tragedy has been averted. How large a tragedy it is impossible to know, but, judging by the Somali death toll of 1992, one could reasonably estimate that upwards of a quarter of a million Somali lives were saved. Some failure.

The Somali

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