Wednesday, April 25, 2007

NY Times on Somalia

The New York Times, in its coverage of Somalia today, has an interesting example of a very good newspaper getting things slightly but importantly wrong. The story concerns an underclass of thugs, mercenaries, and other predatory sorts who have a common interest in seeing the country go ungoverned. The Times holds them responsible for undermining the transitional national government, implying that an endemic underground economy is one of the main barriers to peace in the country.

There’s probably some truth to this, but the story fatally lacks context. The internationally sponsored transitional government has largely become a front for an exceptionally violent occupation of the city by Ethiopian troops. Further, the rise of the government in the area came at the expense of a very real source of home-grown stability. A coalition of Islamic militias and judicial bodies had, at the time Ethiopian troops entered the country, largely stabilised the centre of the country around Mogadishu. Thus, the role of the transitional government is ambiguous, if not down right destructive.

The Times piece mentions all this in passing, but seems to miss the point—absent foreign intervention, there might well be a stable polity in Somalia today. In so doing, the Times is implicitly toeing the line set out by the Bush administration on the subject. It's a bit depressing to see this occurring in American print journalism, just as it's recovering from the fog of WMD stories and embedded reporting.

The lowlifes the story covers probably really are a barrier to stability in the country, but they’re hardly the biggest problem. The real problem is that the international community, chiefly the US, was unable to accept Islamic governance in the Horn of Africa region, even in an almost entirely Muslim country. After a decade and a half of chaos, one would have thought than any government would have been good enough.

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