WASHINGTON — The Bush administration inherited a mess in strategic Somalia and may be leaving President-elect Barack Obama with a worse one.
The explosion of piracy off Somalia's coast is an attention-grabbing product of internal chaos in the Horn of Africa country, and a problem that will outlast the administration's success this past week in winning U.N. backing for possible pirate-hunting raids on Somali territory.
"We have a framework in place now to deal with this issue, but it's not going to be a very easy one," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
Wood meant that there is more to do to combat piracy, and indeed Somali gunmen seized two more ships the day the Security Council voted unanimously to authorize nations to conduct land and air attacks on pirate bases on Somali coast.
Bandits are taking over more and larger ships and ranging farther from land to do it. Last month they seized a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude.
The larger problem, however, is the hollowness of nearly every institution that makes a working country, despite more than 15 years of international help. The Somali pirates may be bandits and thugs, but they also are entrepreneurs making do in a place without a functioning government, laws or normal commerce.
"Once peace and normalcy have returned to Somalia, we believe that economic development can return to Somalia," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said following the U.N. vote. In the meantime, however, she wants a pirate crackdown. "This current response is a good start."
The resolution sets up the possibility of increased American military action in Somalia, which has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictatorship and then turned on one another.
A U.S. peacekeeping mission in 1992-93 ended with a humiliating withdrawal of troops after a deadly clash in Mogadishu, the capital, as portrayed in the movie "Black Hawk Down." A massive U.N. humanitarian program withered.
The country is now at a dangerous crossroads.
Ethiopia, which has been protecting the ineffectual and fractured Somali government, recently announced it would withdraw its troops by the end of this month. That will leave the Western-baked government vulnerable to Islamic insurgents and further chaos.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen singled out Somalia as a danger zone during a recent Pentagon news conference.
"I try to pay a lot of attention to the evolution of potential safe havens" for terrorism, Mullen said. "We need to do all we can to impede the arrival of more safe havens out of which we can be threatened."
The United States accuses the most powerful Islamic faction, al-Shabab, of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Many of the insurgency's senior figures are Islamic radicals; some are on the State Department's list of wanted terrorists.
To address Somalia's underlying problems, the U.S. and the rest of the world would have to spend money building or rebuilding basic services and structures and encourage charities, development organizations and the Somalis themselves to do the same.
The Obama team should also ditch the myopic view of Somalia as little more than a hatchery for Islamic terrorism, said J. Anthony Holmes, head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a former top Africa official at the State Department. He was working there when terrorists trained in what had become a terrorist haven in Afghanistan struck the U.S. on Sept. 11 2001.
"There was a very serious concern that Somalia could be the next Afghanistan, and we've been reacting to that possibility ever since, but only in the most short-term respect," Holmes said. "We've been trying to kill terrorists rather than to facilitate the rebuilding of a state that would be inhospitable to terrorists."
At the least, Muslim Somalia represents a missed opportunity for a Bush administration that made a special project of promoting democratic ideals and good governance in the Muslim world.
Somali civilians have suffered most from the violence surrounding the insurgency, with thousands killed or maimed by mortar shells, machine-gun crossfire and grenades. An estimated 1 million people have been forced from their homes. The U.N. says there are 300,000 acutely malnourished children in Somalia, but attacks and kidnappings of aid workers have shut down many humanitarian projects.
A support economy has grown up in port towns flush with ransom cash. Pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year, seizing 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline.
There are three NATO and Russian vessels and up to 15 other warships from a multinational force patrolling the area, along with a number of U.S. Navy ships. China said Thursday it plans to send ships to join the effort. Just a day before, a Chinese cargo ship's crew — aided by an international anti-piracy force — fought off an attempted hijacking in the Gulf of Aden using Molotov cocktails and water hoses.
On Saturday, Iranian state radio reported that Tehran had sent a warship to the coast of Somalia to protect its cargo ships against piracy.
The commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has expressed doubt about the wisdom of pursuing the pirates onto land. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters it is difficult to identify pirates and said the potential for killing innocent civilians "cannot be overestimated."