President Trump sparked an uproar about race and nationalism in July when he tweeted about unnamed Members of Congress: “Why don’t they go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” Missing from the debate over this nativism – so alien to our creed yet disturbingly familiar in our history – was a discussion of the U.S. role in breaking these countries. After a couple months of cooling off, perhaps now we can have that discussion.
As the first African-born Member of Congress and a prominent critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and Latin America, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is clearly someone Trump had in mind.
Omar was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, and her family fled to Kenya in 1991. They then emigrated to America under the U.S. refugee resettlement program. So why would Omar’s family be fleeing Somalia in 1991, and why would they have been in the program?
In a hearing in February of this year Rep. Omar was questioning the State Department’s Elliott Abrams, who manages policy on Venezuela. Omar attacked his credibility because he had been convicted in 1991 of lying to Congress about his and Oliver North’s solicitation of aid from foreign governments to the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels. She noted that in 1982 Abrams, despite his role as the Reagan administration’s top human rights official, had publicly denied the My Lai-style El Mozote massacre of 900 Salvadoran civilians by U.S.-backed forces.
Then she asked him: “Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela which engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?”
Abrams angrily refused to answer the question, but as Omar then said, “whether under your watch a genocide will take place and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld is a fair question.” She knows in her bones that it’s a fair question, because it wasn’t only El Salvador that was devastated by U.S. policy in the 1980’s and remains a dysfunctional source of chaos and refugees today. Her native Somalia was too.
U.S. intervention in Somalia did not start with President Bush’s humanitarian decision in 1992 to save Somali civilians by enforcing a cease-fire and distributing relief supplies. It actually started in 1980, when under strategic and electoral pressure President Carter made the fateful decision to send military and economic aid to a number of East African and Persian Gulf dictators in return for military bases for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force. Renamed the Central Command, it later led the two invasions of Iraq and the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Somali president Siad Barre was a Marxist general who came to power in a 1969 coup. He used Carter’s and then President Reagan’s massive aid packages to carry out a brutal ten-year civil war that ended with his overthrow by tribal clans in 1991. Omar’s family fled because it had held government positions under Barre, and so was on the losing, U.S.-backed side of a war in which 100,000 Somalis were killed. The resulting chaos and lack of central authority in Somalia has now prevailed for another 28 years. About a million Somalis still live in refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere in the region, and two million are displaced within Somalia. U.S. forces are still fighting there in 2019, with drone strikes, bombing, and Special Forces raids.
Carter’s motivation came from Iran seizing American hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan’s came from Somalia delivering on its promise to provide military bases and support covert operations. Their decisions took place in the context of a U.S. policy of choosing and sustaining cooperative regimes in the former colonial countries. That policy dates back to Franklin Roosevelt and the House of Saud after the discovery of oil in the 1930’s. Then came the Cold War, during which we took on a neo-colonial role as the guarantor of Western interests after Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal were forced out of their colonial one.
Arms for friendly dictators remains our policy today, now under the guise of a war to safeguard us from terrorism, something the policy ironically stimulates itself, by making the United States a logical target. It’s high time we ended that policy, and allied ourselves with the aspirations of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Let’s not break any more countries.
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