Somalia and the Cycle of Arms Sales the US Has to Control the Spread of Conventional Arms to Areas of Conflict

By William D. Hartung. William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow New York and of "And Weapons Policy" . | The Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Somalia and the Cycle of Arms Sales the US Has to Control the Spread of Conventional Arms to Areas of Conflict


William D. Hartung. William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow New York and of "And Weapons Policy" ., The Christian Science Monitor


FEW of the foreign-policy crises Bill Clinton inherited from George Bush is more instructive for future United States foreign policy than the ongoing humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

There is widespread support for the immediate goal of US forces - to keep bands of gun-toting thugs from stealing food out of the mouths of starving men, women, and children. But now in the third month of this military mission it is time to analyze how US policies of the 1980s contributed to the violent disintegration in Somalia in the 1990s. The conflict in Somalia is a textbook case of what is wrong with the cold-war policy of using arms sales as a principal tool of US foreign policy. If President Clinton learns that bitter lesson he can better craft a strategy for preventing similar conflicts from breaking out in the future.

Much has been made of the prominence of AK-47s and other Soviet weaponry in the arsenals of Somali rival factions. That criticism is entirely appropriate: for years Somalia served as a Soviet client state and received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidized weaponry in the process. However, throughout the 1980s it was not the Soviets who were pouring arms into Somalia - it was the US.

Beginning late in the Carter administration and continuing through 1989 when human rights abuses and the state of civil war led to a cessation of US arms transfers to Somalia, the regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre received roughly $1 billion in US military and economic aid. About one-third of that aid was devoted to arms transfers.

Some of the weaponry the US government supplied to the Siad Barre dictatorship is now in the hands of the armed bands that US forces were sent to Somalia to deal with - including military trucks, M-16 rifles, land mines, and recoilless rifles. US troops are being asked to clean up a political and military mess that is partly our own making.

The rationale for US arms aid to Somalia was pure cold-war geopolitics. The Carter administration decided that Somali ports and airfields would be useful as stepping stones for potential military intervention in the Middle East by the US rapid deployment force (since renamed the central command). …

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