How many here saw the recent Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down? Some of you . . . For those who didn't get to see it, the plot, or that which passed for one, was pretty much your standard GI Joe type flick. It takes place in 1993 famine stricken Somalia, and the soldiers are there to provide humanitarian relief and catch some bad guys. Some of the soldiers believe wholeheartedly in the mission, and some say they're just there to kill, or because they really dig being around other soldiers. In any event, the mission goes haywire, and 19 U.S. soldiers get killed, along with at least 1,000 Somalis.
The movie paints the U.S. intervention in Somalia as a humanitarian one, but one that unfortunately, proved unsuccessful because the Somalian people were, at best, prevented from benefiting from this benevolence due to the interference of Somalian warlords, or, at worst, were just too plain stupid and belligerent to resist looking a gift horse in the mouth. As a result the U.S. pulled out of Somalia.
But Hollywood has been known to distort things in the past. Is that really what happened. Well, if you were to look at the mainstream press coverage you would indeed fine a picture painted quite similar to that in Black Hawk Down. According to the press in the early 1990s the East African country of Somalia was indeed gripped by a terrible famine. The famine was the result of a bitter civil war which had destroyed the nations economy and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In early 1993 the U.S. led a United Nations military intervention into the country. Why did we intervene? According to the press, and the White House press conferences the first and foremost reason was to end the famine, to prevent starvation, to save the emaciated, near-dead children who were literally dying by the thousands, hopelessly caught in the middle of a civil war fought by drug-crazed teenagers and power-hungry warlords.
Hmmm. In that case, sad outcome aside, if we are to believe the makers of Black Hawk Down, the mainstream media and Washington, we should look in the mirror and smile because we live in a country whose foreign policy is based on justice and mercy; we live in a country that fortunately is willing to play the much needed role of the benevolent, but fast-shooting cowboy, the Lone Ranger so to speak, protecting the innocent with our flashing guns and shining silver missiles. Truly, white horse not included, we will now ride the planet bringing the benefits of our advanced civilization to all.
Never mind that our gun-toting humanitarian interventions seem to be somewhat selective. The civil wars in Ethiopia, and the Sudan, for example, which promoted similar famines, not to mention the similar tragedies of earlier decades in Bangledesh and Nigeria were apparently not brought to our intention. Likewise, we apparently have not been able to confirm that worldwide starvation and malnutrition is afflicting more than 35 percent of the earth's inhabitants.
Well folks, I do indeed look in the mirror every morning when I get up, but I'm afraid I simply do not believe what Dan Rather, Hollywood or what any president we've ever had has ever said. Call me cyncial, but I'm untrusting of any of those sources, and when they all say the same thing, my instict is to reach for my gun and my wallet. If they all same humanitarianism, then I say it has to be something else.
We in Socialist Action and YSA decided to put on this forum tonight largely in response to the movie Black Hawk Down and the way it portrayed the events in 1993. We intend to take on the claim that the U.S. intervened in Somalia for humanitarian reasons. We also decided to put on this forum because in the wake of September 11, and Pres. Bush's subsequent so called war on terrorism, Somalia has been mentioned more than once as a haven for terrorists, suggesting that a new intervention into that country may be in the works. This, and the INS attacks on Somali immigrants and institutions in this country, including in the Twin Cities, led us to decide that it was important to talk about what really happened in this country, and what the U.S.'s real interests there are.
Lets begin with a brief history of Somalia.
Like virtually every modern African state Somalia's history is the history of imperialism itself.
Though long the home of many independent and indigenous nations and cultures, beginning in the 1880s the horn of East Africa, of which Somalia is part, was divided up by France, Britain and Italy. They were also joined in this carving up of what is today Somalia by Ethiopia, an independent African nation which was spared conquest by aping the European imperialists.
France took the port of Djibouti, which today is a seperate nation by that same name. Italy seized Mogadishu and the coastal areas around it. The British
had earlier taken the port of Berbera, which seperates DJibouti and Mogadishu. Ethopia took the inland region of Ogaden.
The proximity to the Suez Canal was the prime motivating factor for the carve-up of Somalia by the imperialists. The lives, history, culuture and basic democratic rights of the people inhabiting this region were of no interests to the colonialists.
It is interesting to note though, that despite the obvious military superiority that the European imperialists had at their disposal, their colonizing efforts did not go unopposed. In 1899, a tribal leader, nicknamed the 'Mad Mullah,' for example, mobilized the tribes and clans into a fighting force that harassed the British for over 20 years." He was called "Mad," of course, because he the idea that he could unite his nation against the combined forces of the imperialist occupiers. The rebels were finally defeated in 1920 through terror bombing by the British Royal Air Force.
In the last 1950s and early 1960s, as a result of the rising tide of the African liberation movement, many European nations began granting formal independence to their African colonies, choosing to exploit them through more subtle means than they had felt free to employ in the past. Somalia was granted independence in 1960. It was a nation created by imperialism though, reflecting the former borders of the British and Italian colonies, not the actual geographical spread of the Somali people, many of whom were left outside of Somalia's borders, particularly in the Ogaden region still ruled by Ethopia.
Somalis living in the Ogaden region responded by forming the Somalia Liberation Front to fight for their freedom and incorporation into Somalia proper. They were initially aided in this effort by the USSR. In return for its assitance to the Ogaden liberation struggle, Somalia granted the USSR military bases along its Red Sea coast.
Things got complicated though in 1974. In that year a revolution unseated the long ruling Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethopia. A pro-Soviet radical nationalist regime came to power. This military-led regime falsely called itself socialist, like most states on the African continent at that time. The use of this terminology however was no accident. For many African government to achieve any semblance of credibility in the eyes of the people, it was critical to dissociate itself from any and all capitalist labels, since it was known to all that capitalism and imperialism were the the terms most clearly associated with the European colonizers.
The Russians decided to drop their Somali allies for a close relationship with the new regime in Ethopia, which was determined not to relinquish its control of the Somali populated Ogaden region. This left the Ogaden Somali rebels in the lurch. Militarily, despite direct assitance from the Somalian military, the tide shifted and they suffered a terrible defeat. A forced mass exodus of more than one million people into Somalia soon followed.
With the Soviet departure from Somalia, the U.S. entered the picture, offering arms and aid to Somalia. They aligned themself with the Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in return for military bases. The U.S. was also interested in the suspected oil reserves believed to lay underneath the country's soil and off its shores. A U.S./Somalia agreement was signed in 1981 and hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into Somalia to finance Siad Barre's dictatorship.
Siad Barre had come to power in 1969 after assassinating the Somalian president Shermarke. He immediately dissolved the Parliament and banned all political parties and public organizations.
Following the Ethopia's defeat of Somalia in the Ogaden in 1978, conflict broke out in Somalia proper. A number of tribes and clans opposed the dictatorial rule of the now U.S.-backed Siad Barre regime rose up. The U.S. State Department had to admit that only wholesale atrocities and massacres kept Siad Barre in power for the rest of the decade. Thousands of civilians and whole cities were wiped out. Siad Barre's weapons were now sold to him by U.S. arms manufacturers. During the 80s he received almost a billion dollars in so-called aid for such purchases.
Siad Barre was a bloody dictator, but as Teddy Roosevelt used to say about Somoza in Nicaragua in the 1930s, "our son of a bitch". Jimmy Carter even welcomed him to the White House when he visited the United States, gleefully shaking his blood-stained hands.
The Somalian people on the other hand, continued to organize to rid themselves of the Siad Barre dictatorship. The Somalian National Movement in the northern part of the country declared an independent state and the United Somali Congress ousted Siad Barre himself in 1991.
But the central leaders of the opposition to Siad Barre could not agree on a division of power. Occasional socialist rhetoric notwithstanding, these military leaders are more closely associated with the leading capitalist interests, usually foreign. They proceeded to engage in a bloody conflict which took the lives of 4000 and wounded 10,000 others. The main factions led by the two warring generals, Ali Mahli Mohammid and Mohammid Farrah Aideed divided the bleeding city of Mogadishu into two military enclaves with virtually no civil administration.
It was under these conditions that the famine developed. In this respect, it is not far from the truth to say that the famine the U.S. intervened to stop, was itself created by the United States, since it was a direct result of the fight against the U.S. backed dictator Siad Barre.
Now at this point in the talk I want to take a few minutes to talk about famines in general, and what causes them.
What produces famines?
During the time of the Somalian famine in the January I5, 1993 issue of the NYT, News of the Week in Review, Sylvia Nasar reported the following:
"According to economists who study famine in Africa, Asia and Europe, the kind of famine which struck in Somalia, a famine created by clan warfare, not by crop shortages, or endemic poverty, is the rule, not the exception."
Nasar refers to Harvard economist, Amartya Sen, author of Poverty and Famine as follows: "World food production has kept well ahead of population growth. Drought or flood do often precede famines, but declines in food production rarely account for them.
Sen's book changed the way many scholars analyze hunger, according to the Times. Typically, as thousands die, there's enough food in the country to go around, or enough money to import it.
"Disaster strikes because the poorest, most downtrodden members of society suddenly can no longer afford to buy food, usually because of sudden unemployment or a surge in food prices.
"Death Amidst Plenty" is the sub-heading leading to Nasar's next paragraph:
"In Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa for example, there has been on average, twice as much food available per person as in other flood or drought-prone countries that managed to avoid mass deaths.
"One of the worst recent famines--Bangledesh's in I974, took place in a year of universally high rice production."
As Martin Ravillion, a World Bank economist who specializes in poverty in Asia, described it: "Severe flooding disrupted rice planting and threw landless rural laborers out of work. Then, false fears of shortages doubled rice prices in a few weeks. For the poor who spend more than three-quarters of their wages on food, the blow was catastrophic.
"But the famine, which was largely over even before the rice crop was harvested, was hardly inevitable.
"'Almost everything the government did made things worse,' said Mr.. Ravallion. Bangledesh's authoritarian rulers sent the army out to 'bash hoarders' convincing people that it had lost control and fueling the price surge."
And finally: "The United States contributed by announcing that it would withhold food aid to punish Bangledesh for, of all things, selling jute to Cuba."
Already, having looked at what causes famine, lets look more closely at what happened in Somalia, and what role the U.S. may have had in creating it in the first place.
The giant food conglomerates in the U.S. and in other imperialist nations engage in dumping huge amounts of grain around the world even when there is no famine. This has the same effect as the cheap food which has been dumped on the market in Somalia. With so much food suddenly available, the price of a 110-pound bag of rice, for example, has quickly dropped to $7.00. What this means is that the Somalian peasants who have begun to grow crops again cannot compete with the low price of the agribusiness dumpings. This in turn tends to drive more peasants off the land in addition to making it harder for those who had left during the famine and civil war to find work. Finally, when market supplies eventually decline, leading to higher prices, the poor will again be without means to buy food. In countries like Somalia, more than two-thirds of peasant income often goes for food alone.
In the United States, as with other imperialist countries, the grain dumped on Somalian and other Third World markets, sells at prices below the cost of local production. This is not only due to the advantage of advanced agricultural techniques, but to the policy of extending government-financed export subsidies to the corporate grain monopolies. Thus, the need for advanced capitalist nations to find new markets for its "surplus" grains effectively leads to the destruction of not only the manufacturing, but the agricultural economies of poor nations.
Production of cereals more than doubled in the last 30 years, disproving Malthusian theories that world food supply cannot keep up with population growth. Countries like Brazil, China and India have registered giant increases in grain production. These increases though have been very uneven and have not taken place in a manner that has resulted in any kind of even or just distribution of food.
Now, at this point, having heard all this stuff about Somalia's history, about famine and about agribusiness, you might be saying to yourself, okay, so the U.S. screwed up and was to a large extent responsible for the Somalian civil war and the famine. And maybe even U.S. agribusinesses did indeed take advantage of the situation to increase its market share and get a bit of an advantage over its competitors. That's wrong, and should be opposed. But maybe that's why our government sent in the Marines, to try and fix up what we did wrong? Wasn't it a good thing that they tried to stop the famine, regardless of how it started? Why else would they go to all that expense and trouble to send in the Marines?
Well, there are some basic facts that cast doubt on the argument that the intervention was some kind of attempt to fix what we caused. One thing thing that raises eyebrows is that during the intervention the press reported how U.S. soldiers were compelled to, or better, had been directed to, operate in collaboration with the same clan leaders who were causing the famine. This includes paying a healthy percentage of 25 percent or more to the clans for their cooperation in food distribution. The Non-Governmental Organizations, or relief agencies, in effect did the same thing. The Red Cross reports that 20-30 percent of its relief aid was stolen, a factor which it had to regularly factor into its business calculations.
Perhaps this was necessary to get the job done, but when we add to this the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the military operation, it is clear that providing food with troops was incredibly inefficient. If indeed the problem in the country was food scarcity, the problem could have been solved by flooding the country with food, not imperialist troops. Working as closely with agribussiness and other corporations as Washington is apt to do, one would think they knew a bit about how to distribute food a bit more efficiently.
Add to this the fact that the food arrived only after the worst effects of the famine were over. Reporters on the scene wrote of seeing U.S. soldiers arriving in some areas to find vast land areas with crops in abundance and no famine in sight.
These are embarrassing facts to point out to those who insist that the U.S. intervention was benevolent in nature. Embarrassing because it was not designed after all to stop a famine, or to clean up a mess agribussiness or our previous foriegn policies had created. The U.S. ruling class had other motives in mind. In fact, it had oil on its mind.
During the U.S. intervention in Somalia, a very embarrassing expose waspublished in the Los Angeles Times about the relationship of oil to the Somalia events. CBS News and the San Francisco Chronicle also confirmed that prior to the outbreak of the civil war, when Somalia was ruled by the U.S.-backed Siad Barre dictatorship, four major U.S. oil corporations were granted and purchased oil leases to explore Somalia's newly-discovered oil resources. Nearly two-thirds of Somalia's land surface was granted to Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Philips Petroleum.
According to the SF Chronicle: "Industry sources said that the companies holding the rights to the most promising concessions are hoping that the Bush Administration's decision to send U.S. troops to safeguard aid shipments to Somalia will also help protect their multi-million investments there.
"Officially, the administration and the State Department insist that the U.S. military mission in Somalia is strictly humanitarian. Oil industry spokesmen dismissed as "absurd" and "nonsense" allegations by aid experts, veteran East Africa analysts and several prominent Somalis that President Bush, a former Texas oilman, was moved to act in Somalia, at least in part by the U.S. corporate oil stake.
"But corporate and scientific documents disclose that the American oil companies are well-positioned to pursue Somalia's most promising oil reserves the moment the nation is pacified." [I marvel at the ease with which this reporter uses the word "pacified.'] "And State Department and U.S. military officials acknowledge that one of those oil companies has done more than sit back and hope for peace.
"Conoco even permitted its Mogadishu corporate compound to be transformed into a de facto American embassy a few days before the U.S. Marines landed in the capital."
Now those are some very interesting revelations, revelations that become even more revealing when you put them into perspective by looking at the history oil has played in U.S. foreign policy.
Oil and imperialism
In the 1970s, the world's oil industry was highly centralized, with 70 percent of production and 50 percent of refinery capacity in the hands of seven corporations. Today the number has been reduced to six. Five of these were U.S.-owned; the other two were jointly held by the British government and private capital (British Petroleum) and by British and Dutch Corporations (Royal Dutch Shell).
Ranked in terms of assets, Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1971 was the largest U.S. corporation; Texaco, third; Gulf, fifth; Mobil, seventh; and Standard Oil of California , tenth. These multinational corporations owned most of the oil in the Middle East. The result was the unimpeded extraction of billions of dollars in profits from oppressed nations in favor of U.S. capital.
Two of the most powerful ruling class families in the world, the Rockefellers and the Mellons, stand at the top of the world's oil pyramid. By 1971 the Rockefellers, in addition to their controlling interest in such corporations as the Chase Manhatten Bank and the lesser oil concerns, controlled three of the five major U.S. oil concerns. The Mellons owned the controlling interest in Gulf Oil.
The influence of the oil families in U.S. politics and foreign policy is directly related to their financial power. Former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, for example, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, was the chief architect of U.S. military, economic and political policy in the Middle East. He and his brother Allen were partners in the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, the major attorneys for Standard Oil of New Jersey. Allen Dulles was the director of the CIA.
The politics of oil has not changed much since the Dulles brothers. They too were adept at pretexts for U.S. military interventions, most often promoting the myth of an expansionist communism led by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the former USSR. Absent the "communist threat" lesser lights have come to the fore to play the role of world "bogeyman."
Look for example at how we used the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the subsequent coming to power by the Ayotollah Khomeni to interefere in Middle East politics, playing a key role in maintaining the devastating eight year war between Iraq and Iran - which divided the Middle East, and provided numerous pretexts for U.S. troops to intervene.
Look at how the U.S. used Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Kuwait, it should be pointed out was an artificially created monarchy, that historically was part of Iraq. It was created by the British to make it easier to control the oil there. When Kuwait began illegally slant drilling oil under the Iraqi border it was invaded. The U.S. told Saddam before hand it didn't care. When it happened though Washington rushed in the troops. Why? Just look at the Middle East today as a result. U.S. troops are still stationed there protecting the Saudi oil fields. The potentially radical Arab states are divided against each other, and scared shitless haven seen the power of the U.S. military might when it was unleased upon Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands.
Look at how the U.S. has supported Isreal, further dividing the Middle East, dividing the Arabs against themselves by trying to get so called moderate Arab states to recongize the extermination of the Palestinian nation, while ostracizing the Arab states which condemn Isreal and Zionism.
It's all about pretexts my friends. Oil is crucial to the running of today's capitalist economy. This makes the Middle East of crucial importance to the U.S. It makes the Horn of Africa strategic, both because of its proximity to the oil, its possible oil reserves, and its location along the oil tanker routes through both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
These are the real reasons the U.S. intervened in Somalia. They wanted to protect the investments and hoped for profits of American oil companies. And also, because these are times marked by ever increasing inter-imperialist economic rivalry, Washington needs to be free to pursue the dollar with the bomb, without restriction, in order to back up our corporations, and our interests. McDonalds needs McDonnell Douglas to stay on top of the money making game, and nothing helps keep competitors in check than some good old fashioned muscle flexing and bomb dropping. That's why the U.S. continues to do what it is doing to Iraq, that's why we went to war with Afghanistan, that's why we're intervening today in Columbia and the Philippines, and that's why we intervened in Somalia in the early 1990s.
Now what does all this mean, and what can we do about it. Truly we live a world of incredible contradictions: Having achieved the highest levels of technology in the history of humanity the reality is that 2 billion of the earth's 5.5 billion inhabitants still face hunger and malnutrition. Oppression and exploitation is on the rise, in the Middle East, in East Africa, in Columbia all the way to right here in the upper-Midwest.
Fidel Castro, speaking at the United Nations during the time of the Somalian invasion highlighted the situation by saying the following:
"And in the United Nations, all 15 members of the Security Council without exception, voted for the intervention in Somalia, since it was a solid pretext---the pictures of emaciated people, of people starving to death.
And so the aircraft carriers arrived, arrived along with the battleships, helicopters, tanks, all kinds of things, and the boots, which in some pictures could be seen on the backs of Somali citizens.
"In other words, they went in to take food through gunfire, to take food there through gunfire. And, in another part of the world, they have a blockade against a country like Cuba, trying to make Cuba die of starvation and disease. That's the logic, those are the morals of the American empire."