January 24, 2007 | World Defense Review

Coping with Humpty Dumpty

As I get older, I have increasingly come to appreciate the wisdom that we learn in from our elders in the early years of our earthly lives. Some of those lessons are imparted explicitly in the solemn moments of our youth, while others are inculcated implicitly by what Samuel Huntington calls our “core culture.” Of the latter, perhaps no expression has been as elemental as the English nursery rhyme which, passed down from generation to generation, has been the bearer of both the language and history of those who first raised the flag of liberty on these shores.

As a toddler, one of the first that rhymes I learned at the WASPish preschool my assimilation-eager immigrant parents enrolled me in was the sad tale of Humpty Dumpty: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall / All the King's Horses, And all the King's men / Couldn't put Humpty together again.” I have since learned that, pace Lewis Carroll, the original Humpty Dumpty was not a person, but a huge cannon deployed by the Royalists in their defense of Colchester during the English Civil War. The gun was put on a critical, but hastily erected, bastion constructed along the buttresses of medieval St. Mary's Church. A month into the siege of the town during the summer of 1648, the gun emplacement took a direct hit from Roundhead (Parliamentarian) artillery, causing the massive cannon to tumble to the ground. Humpty was so heavy that the laws of physics took their toll: neither Charles I's Cavaliers (“King's Horses”) nor any of his engineers (“King's men”) could salvage their principal weapon. As a result, the strategically important royal stronghold fell to the rebel forces of Oliver Cromwell.

All this points to a very inconvenient truth of international politics that is just as fundamental as the principles of physics which spelled Humpty Dumpty's doom: like other material objects, including the Colchester cannon, states can sometimes be cobbled together from component parts. Similarly, come a strong enough blow to their foundations, some will take a tumble from which it is useless to try to put them back together – and that assumes that they should have been so constructed in the first place.

In last week's column, I discussed how the defeat of the radical Islamist forces in Somalia was a victory in the global struggle against terrorism. In an earlier contribution to the online edition of The National Interest, I outlined the tasks that lay ahead in reconstructing the ravaged country and preventing a recurrence of the just-overcome threat. While there is no doubt that the lands inhabited by the Somali-speaking peoples affected by the recent conflict need to be reconstructed, I want, however, to raise now a different, perhaps more significant, question concerning whether “Somalia” itself should be restored as a single unified state. Although I will confine my observations to Africa in general and Somalia in particular, these considerations certainly have their application in other conflict arenas around the world where it is my contention that the fundamental error of Bush administration's policy of democracy promotion is not its advocacy of more liberal and participatory governance structures, but rather its attempt to get nation-states to adopt democratic institutions when their nationhood – to say nothing of their statehood – is notional at best.

In what was once the Somali Democratic Republic, as well as throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the most formidable obstacle to stability, the rule of law, development, democracy, and the other goods we in the West take for granted has been neither poverty nor any other material factor. It has been the questionable legitimacy of the state itself, legitimacy being understood not as a normative judgment about juridical right or moral virtue but in the social and political sense of whether or not the structures of a given polity have evolved endogenously within a society and its institutions can claim some historical continuity. While Africa has a rich social, cultural, and political history, modern African states are not rooted in this past. The present-day borders and national compositions of African states are colonial legacies, emerging directly from the often arbitrary ways that the great powers delineated their respective spheres of influence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The survival of these artifices has not been contingent so much on internal legitimacy – by and large, non-existent – but due to international recognition. Without any organic ties such as shared language, culture, and history binding them to a historic nation-state, many post-independence rulers used the “sovereignty” awarded them by that legal recognition to pillage national resources with their cronies and resorted to massive human rights abuses to prevent protests from those excluded from the spoils. Despite the damning evidence of the wholesale failure of the juridical states they inherited from the former colonial patrons, African elites have persisted in their canonization of the status quo. The precursor of the present African Union (AU), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), formally declared the received borders a “tangible reality” and required that its member governments pledge themselves “to respect the frontiers existing on their achievement of national independence.”

In the case of the Somali-speaking peoples of the Horn of Africa, while they are united by a common language and share ethnic similarities, they have been divided by clan-based polities since they made their appearance in history around the tenth century. These divisions continued during the colonial period when the French controlled a enclave in the northwest (the present Republic of Djibouti), the British both a northern coastal area (the present, albeit unrecognized, territory of the Republic of Somaliland) and a southern zone (now the North Eastern Province of Kenya), the Ethiopians a western area (the Ogaden region of Ethiopia), and the Italians the eastern coast. With the exception of the period when Somaliland and the former Italian trust territory were held together first by a union soon regretted by the former and then by the iron grip of the brutal dictator Muhammad Siyad Barre – hardly an episode to be repeated given not only the abuses against the ruler's subjects, but his expansionist “pan-Somali” wars with his neighbors – “Somalia,” to paraphrase Prince Klemens von Metternich, has never been more than a geographical expression.

And yet now, despite all the evidence that the exercise is doomed to failure if not tragedy, the United States and the international community have decided to throw their weight behind the fantasies of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) about forging a unitary state. In an address last week at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier listed mobilizing support for the self-appointed TFG as the first U.S. priority for Somalia. One can only hope that Dr. Frazier was only being diplomatically polite since, as Hans J. Morgenthau once put it, “it is not only a political necessity but also a moral duty for a nation to follow in its dealings with other nations one guiding star, one standard for thought, one rule for action: THE NATIONAL INTEREST.” In the case of Somalia, our interests are, as I previously argued, first and foremost, sweeping up the remnants of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and, secondly, assuring ongoing regional security and stability – neither of these objectives necessarily requires the TFG nor are they likely to be satisfied by that feckless gaggle of scavengers whose only claim to legitimacy is the self-anointing they administered to themselves during a 2004 conference at a Kenyan resort, the bill for which kaffeeklatsch being borne by Western taxpayers.

As of last weekend, TFG “President” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad – who is, in any event, much less popular in the capital than “Prime Minister” Ali Muhammad Ghedi, a scion of the Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan – has in hiding after the “presidential” villa was shelled by rivals. Unfortunately, the TFG kapo did not go to ground before making incendiary remarks about Somaliland, the one part of the former Somalia that has not only been an island of stability, but also successfully created a legitimate democratic (and secular) political order. (Officially, Abdullahi was closeted in deliberations with the United Nations special envoy, François Lonseny Fall, a former Guinean prime minister whose having helped lead a faltering country – which last week was, coincidentally, beginning its second week of violent strikes – to the precipice (see my column last fall predicting this turmoil) no doubt qualified him for his current state-building assignment in the eyes of the UN bureaucracy which, in any event, never thought to ask what it might imply about the man if the country Monsieur Fall led was rated by Transparency International as the “most corrupt” in Africa.)

As for the yet-to-materialize African stabilization force whose deployment was described as America's second priority by Dr. Frazier, so far only Uganda has firmly committed itself, President Yoweri Museveni offering 1,500 troops. Even if U.S. and European envoys manage to cajole other countries into contributing the rest of the 8,000 peacekeepers to take the place of the withdrawing Ethiopian intervention force, it is beyond delusional to think that such a modest contingent of Africans can succeed where the infinitely more robust UNITAF and UNOSOM II forces, with their 37,000 and 28,000 personnel respectively, failed barely a decade ago.

Without even bother to move to the capital of Mogadishu from their camp-out at a former warehouse in the provincial outback of Baidoa, the TFG's legislature has fallen yet again into bickering with members of the rump parliament (nearly half defected to the then-ascendant Islamists or fled during the recent conflict) voting to sack speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden while the latter was traveling in Europe soliciting even more Western money. The deposed speaker's crime? He has been a voice for the very outreach to non-radical Islamists and other stakeholders whose inclusion in the regime Assistant Secretary Frazier listed as the third and final policy priority of the U.S. with respect to Somalia.

My point is that U.S. interests in the critical regions like the Horn of Africa require security and stability, neither of which will be achieved by shoring up inherently illegitimate and, in fact, destabilizing regimes constructed at some international conference center. If one seeks the domestication into international society of the former Somalia, recognize well-deserving (and de facto independent) Somaliland, encourage developments in promising (and already semi-autonomous) Puntland, allow the rest of the land to coalesce as its inhabitants see fit, and definitely give up the idea that the “international community” can somehow impose a state structure that has even the slimmest chance of long-term success. (Not surprisingly, this prospective division is not dissimilar to the patterns of political organization found by Sir Richard Burton in his celebrated 1854 visit to the Somali coast.)

In short, let, reality, common sense, and legitimate aspirations of indigenous peoples – so long as they are viable and do not threaten their neighbors – prevail over theoretical constructs and elaborate schemes for “dialogue” when there is nothing to be said and “reconciliation” when there was never any real union in the first place. Over the long term, organic developments yield legitimacy which, in turn, provides an anchor of stability amid volatile conditions. While this proposal may not be politically correct – the mandarins UN and their AU counterparts would certainly squeal – it conforms to the proven wisdom of the venerable rhyme cited above and is, moreover, far more realistic than latter-day fantasies about being able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


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