Presidential transition: Somalia

December 8, 2016 Bryan Craig
Photo courtesy of DoD

As we face a new presidential transition, it is good to remember that transitions can be a vulnerable time. President Donald Trump could create or inherit situations that might lead to a crisis. This is what happened in Somalia in 1992-1993.

On December 4, 1992, President George H. W. Bush, who was defeated for re-election by Governor Bill Clinton, ordered 28,000 troops into Somalia in an operation called “Operation Restore Hope.” It was the beginning of a humanitarian effort as the civil war raging in Somalia threatened the relief program set up by the United Nations. Once Clinton was in office, the operation became a man-hunt for Somalian warlord, General Mohammed Aidid. In October 1993, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed during a failed attempt to search for Aidid. This bloody event was chronicled in the famous book and movie, "Blackhawk Down." After this event, President Clinton ordered a total U.S. withdrawal from Somalia.

The Miller Center's George H. W. Bush Oral History Project looks at this event through excerpts from various members of the administration. They examine Bush's decision to send U.S. troops and how the Clinton administration handled the situation that it inherited. In particular, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral David Jeremiah noted the new Clinton administration was not prepared for waging humanitarian efforts or nation building in Somalia. 

Excerpts from the George H. W. Bush Oral History Project

Director of CIA Bill Gates: 

I think first of all the Bush administration’s intervention in Somalia to try to deal with the famine is probably as good a case study in foreign policy by CNN as any I can think of. The public outcry and the pressure from the Congress as a result of the televised pictures of starvation and anarchy in Somalia were, but above all the starvation, just became a huge force to deal with. And I believe, because it was in the context, in the same time frame as an election campaign—I think the decision was made they had to respond to this public pressure. I don’t think that if it had been a non-election year and if there had been no CNN pictures, that we would have ever gone into Somalia. 

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney:

Somalia, that was at the tail end and I was reluctant. I was always reluctant. You had to have a damned good reason to commit the force and you always had the feeling—I suppose General Powell was even somewhat more conservative than I was—and you’re always a little nervous about the State Department. Lots of times they’re eager to commit the assets but they don’t have any assets. It’s the Defense Department’s troops that get deployed. In Somalia, what we ended up with, there was a desire to do something. The commitment we made was very much viewed by us at the time we did it as a humanitarian activity. This was not a go-to-war operation; this was to go to Somalia to restore some stability so that humanitarian relief organizations could get in and feed starving people. Later on, obviously, it became a significant military operation, but that was after we left. It’s important I think to look at what we did in Somalia at least in terms of our initial involvement. The decision we made was very different from what eventually emerged after they had the battle in Mogadish.

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral David Jeremiah:

We were able to move. The problem was we were post election. Bush wanted to intervene. He did not want to have the problem carried over into the Clinton administration. Clinton should not have to deal with that problem, so go figure out how to solve Somalia. Can’t do it. Cheney and Colin both told the President, “We cannot get the stuff there in time to meet the change of administration. We’ll do the best we can, but we can’t meet that. We’ll try.” So we tried. We did pretty well…But the problem was, we dug up a coalition and we got people to come and help, the typical African nations. It says here a thousand bodies. “They don’t know anything, but we want $5,000 a day for them.” “Okay, fine, thanks for your contribution.” But we got it done. We got stuff in there. We got roads secured. We got things out to the population. We bought goats and sheep in Australia and airlifted them. You’ve got to have seeds to grow plants; you’ve got to have stock to build more stock. We’d turn them over to the village people and they were able to do things. We suppressed the technicals and provided security for the people on the ground.

The deal was that then we would turn it over to the United Nations and we would be a participant in that. The United Nations, right, uh-huh. “Okay, well we’ll provide some police, or maybe not. We haven’t got very many people around to staff that. I don’t think anybody really wants to go to Somalia out of the UN offices. You’ve just kind of got to do the best you can.” You just keep banging on them and banging on them. We had a Joint Staff officer, a one-star who was up there all the time talking to—

Interviewer Russel Riley: Kofi Annan.

Jeremiah: Kofi Annan. We were able to get that going. Change of administration. Jonathan Howe decides to go off and be a UN guy and run that. Everybody is happy. We had a great Turkish general officer, really great guy, who became so—it was just awful, I’m sure it ruined his career. Nobody would help. Jonathan still was plugging in where he could to talk to Joe Hoar. He talked to Colin, talked to me to try to get us to do this and that and the other thing and we’re saying, “Well, yes, Jonathan, but we’re not supposed to do that, we can’t do that. Nobody wants to do that.” So he was emasculated. The UN was feckless, no other way of describing it. The people he was sent were terrible; they never manned up their positions over 50 percent I would say. So we got into the rhubarb at the end after Black Hawk Down, 18 soldiers killed, dragged through the street. That was my first day on the job as Acting Chairman.

Riley: Can you hold onto it? I just want to follow up on one thing, and that was on the question of “mission creep,” that it moves from, as I understand it—and I’m throwing this out there as a conception to be corrected—it moves from essentially an humanitarian mission into a police action where there is an effort to capture [Mohamed Farah] Aidid. Right? I guess that’s where the—

Jeremiah: Yes, that’s where the special forces guys got into the act, but that was all part of what essentially was nation building. There’s two kinds of creep. One of them was you need to go north. We said, “No, we don’t need to go north,” because there was a splinter group that was creating a problem up in the north and there were minefields and they wanted us to go over there and de-mine the area and so on.

Riley: Who is pressing to go north?

Jeremiah: The UN. Then the other pressure, or creep, was as you described. The third was nation building. The UN wanted us to do this, do that, let’s get a government in here and all that stuff. That wasn’t what we set out to do. Jon carried some of that burden…

I spent the worst week in my life daily in the White House doing foreign policy 101 in the Roosevelt Room with the newbies in the administration. People would come in and offer advice from time to time who knew nothing and then they’d go on about their business and check in on us every three or four days. Now we were at the stage where the Congress was banging on us to get out at the same time they were banging on us to put tanks in to protect people who were deployed on the ground so that they could evacuate.

We were not about to put the tanks in there, then you’ve got to have infantry to be with the tanks so you’re creating more targets. You want less targets and yadda, yadda, yadda. So this went on and on. I don’t recall exactly the date and time, but Clinton called me in. We were there in the White House in the Roosevelt Room. He stuck his head in, listened a little bit. Then he asked me to come over to the Oval Office. I went over to the Oval Office, went into the infamous little room.

Riley: The study.

Jeremiah: The study. We had a one-on-one conversation. He said what do we do? How do we get out of this? At the risk of being parochial, “I have a carrier battle group in the North Arabian Sea, I have a Marine amphibious group in the eastern Mediterranean, and a Marine amphibious ready group in the South China Sea and we can get them there, the carrier first and the others next in a little over a week.”

When we originally went into Somalia, Colin Powell persuaded Ambassador [Robert B.] Oakley to come in from retirement as he was well-known and respected by the Somalis. We developed a pattern so that when the F-14s showed up, the villagers knew that within a day behind the F-14s Oakley would show up, and behind Oakley were the Marines, and food would show up and people who were otherwise going to die in three or four days hung on. We did do those things and there was recovery. That went on throughout most of the time as long as the Marines were deployed there. Then when the Marines and Navy pulled out, the Army and the UN forces took over. But we had created an understanding on the part of the Somali populace that Marines were tough and good and the irregular outfits were not going to be allowed to screw around or interfere with the food supply. The Somalis, good and bad, respected the Marines. We didn’t have to put them ashore like the Army unless we wanted to and only for as long as it took to control a particular situation. Then we could bring them back offshore.

We could move supplies in and move people out and we could get the UN forces evacuated and the U.S. forces evacuated and then recover Marine aviation and the carrier aviation that was immediately available. I told all this to President Clinton and he told me to make it so. We did.

So we got out. I thought that was a tremendous demonstration of what kind of flexibility you get from a maritime force that has the ability to do those kinds of things. I don’t know how we would have gotten out of there any other way except doing another Dunkirk kind of action. I get emotional about this one because I think it was so important. I got emotional about Somalia at the front end because I was so frustrated with our decision-making process and got emotional at the back end because we couldn’t come to grips with what to do, how to do it.

Riley: Let me ask you a question about this because it’s something we pick up on when we’re doing interviews on Clinton, that there was said to be a frustration on the President’s part about “mission creep,” that the mission had evolved from the point at which troops had been inserted to something very different. I wonder if you could comment both on your sense about how the mission had evolved and also on your sense about President Clinton’s own engagement with this issue. As I understand it, there were people in the White House who were in fact engaged on this on an ongoing basis, but it really wasn’t something that the President himself had paid a great deal of attention to until the episodes that you talk about either just before or at the point of Black Hawk Down.

Jeremiah: I went down and briefed him in Little Rock right after the election on Somalia and what was going on and what we intended to do so that he was not surprised.

Riley: Did you go alone?

Jeremiah: No, I had a staff officer with me. He had [Samuel] Sandy Berger and Vice President [Albert, Jr.] Gore and some others in the room.

Riley: Tony Lake?

Jeremiah: Yes.

Riley: You didn’t get push back or hostility from them about the intervention?

Jeremiah: “Thank you very much for the briefing,” which is really all he could say. I believe they never really were engaged until that sequence that I just described after the Black Hawk Down. They expected to kind of muddle through. They had way too much faith in the UN, and that was across the board. The new White House staff was way over enthusiastic about what they could expect out of the UN. They thought we would all get together and kumbaya, and that wasn’t going to happen at all…

The exit strategy was get out of Dodge as quickly as we can so we can handle the transfer to Clinton as a completely finished project or nearly so. The way to do that was pass the banana to the United Nations, and there was every reason at that stage of the game where you would expect they would be happy to take it. Turns out that they weren’t.