By James Harris
Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, argues for a more humane foreign policy and explains why American airstrikes in Somalia and elsewhere are about more than terrorism.
Click here to listen to a recording of this interview.
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here with Emira Woods, the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. I really wanted to share with you what Emira and I were talking about, because people are dying. The U.S. is responsible for the death of those people, and there are intentions and agendas in play in Somalia and Ethiopia on the northeast coast of Africa that, frankly, are not being talked about in American media.
Emira Woods: Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be dug up even further, and I just thank you for your resource in shedding light on these often neglected and overlooked stories. So I am happy to talk about Somalia. Clearly, Somalia is of strategic importance to the United States. It is this week [interview was conducted in March] that there were U.S. airstrikes on Somalia. It has followed a year of successive airstrikes on Somalia. So the end result has been Somali civilians killed as the U.S. pursues its so-called war on terror. Essentially, the rhetoric of the Bush administration is that they are seeking the terrorists that were involved in the bombing of the U.S. embassies 10 years ago, that they have intelligence that those terrorists went into hiding in Somalia 10 years ago, and that these airstrikes are to get them, to get those terrorists. That’s the rhetoric. The reality is that Somalia has been of strategic importance for quite some time and, really, throughout the Cold War—it’s not a recent phenomenon—throughout the Cold War, first the U.S. and then the USSR, they took turns to control and to assert their influence over Somalia. Their proxy wars happened in Somalia. Why? Because of the strategic location of Somalia. Somalia is right off the Indian Ocean; it’s the Gulf of Aden. Without control over this vital water resource, this vital waterway, all of the shipping, including the oil resources that come from the Middle East to the U.S. and the rest of the world, could be impacted. So what you have is a vital location for Somalia, its richness of its coast. Because of that you had successive attempts to control Somalia during the Cold War period. This all ended when the Cold War ended. And back in 1991, the dictator, really, that controlled Somalia, lost all his external support and was ousted.
Harris: And who was put in? Who was put in?
Woods: Well, see, that’s the thing. When Siad Barre left in ‘91, there was a political vacuum for about 15 years. There was no government. Somalia was the only country in the world that had no government.
Harris: Until 2005 ...
Woods: Fifteen years! 2006, about 2006, this formation of a government—so there were many attempts to form a government, many of them happening in Kenya, interestingly enough, with some support from the international community, but many of those attempts failed because they did not get the buy-in from the majority of the Somali people. Now, in June 2006 a government came to power that finally got support from the majority of the Somali people. Now, the thing is, it called itself the Union of Islamic Courts. And you know, for the Bush administration. ...
Woods: You know, that’s a word that goes too far for them. And so the Bush administration decided, “No, no, no! That government must not stand.” The Bush administration ignored Somali opinion, which essentially said, “For the first time in 15 years there’s peace. And there’s a prospect for further peace.”
Harris: Because the people in Somalia agree on their government ...
Woods: People agreed on the government. The government was able to maintain security. So, for the first time, people could send their children to school without worries of attacks. Women could walk the streets and go to the market without worries of rape or attacks. There was a sense of stability for the first time.
Harris: All right, are you a fan of the government during that time?
Woods: Well, clearly, the government was in place from June 2006 to December 2006, when the U.S. decided that they had to go. So it was a six-month period, right?
Harris: Of bliss.
Woods: A six-month period of peace. But it was short-lived. So it’s hard to say what that government would have or could have done.
Harris: And what happened, what happened after ....
Woods: Essentially, what happened ...
Harris: ... peace?
Woods: In December ‘06 the U.S. started their airstrikes and they had, also, their proxy army, really, the Ethiopian army, come in on the land, on ground. So you had ground forces from the Ethiopians, air attacks from the U.S. that dislodged that government in Somalia, killing ...
Harris: And they ...
Woods: ... in the process of fighting.
Harris: So they are a fighting army.
Woods: Fighting army from Ethiopia. Fighting army from the U.S. Attacking Somalis to dislodge a government supported by the Somali people. This is the essence of it. So the Bush administration, as is the case in many instances, picks sides, right? They pick sides based on their view of the world, this lens of Islamo-terrorist, Islamo-extremist—however you call it, right?—us versus them. And the “them” ... the government supported by Somalis but not a government that the U.S. was in support of. And so what they did was, they did whatever could be possible, including direct attacks to dislodge that government. So there is now a transitional, interim government that has been imposed on the Somali people, with support of the U.S. and the Ethiopian army. And of course the Somalis see this as a government that’s supported by external agents and that’s not legitimate. So there has been continuous, over the last year, outbreaks of tension, of outright fighting and complete instability. And we see, just this week the U.S., through their airstrikes, continuing to foment the tension to get their way in Somalia.
Harris: And who are they striking?
Woods: So they are ...
Harris: Is that a dumb question? Who are they ... ? Are people getting killed? Where are they hidden? Are these strategic strikes or are they strategic strikes like Bill Clinton’s during the 1997 Afghanistan?
Woods: James, let me tell you: They are hitting civilians. This is what has been reported repeatedly. From those airstrikes back in December ‘06 to the airstrikes of this week, none of these supposed terrorists or extremists have been found or have been killed. It is women. You hear the stories this week of women and children being killed by the U.S. airstrikes. And so you see that, regardless of their rhetoric, the result is that civilians are being attacked. Civilians are being killed by an irresponsible U.S. foreign policy.
Harris: There was that one moment in that movie “Blood Diamond,” where the movie was ...
Woods: It was a good movie.
Harris: It was legitimized by this one statement, “This is Africa.” That anything that goes on in Africa could be made acceptable, could be overlooked, and could be forgotten. Is this another example of this being “That’s just Africa”?
Woods: Well, I think, James, that’s at the core of it. U.S. foreign policy has absolutely neglected Africa for much too long. When they’ve paid attention, they’ve paid attention in the wrong way, you know? Often times there’s this assumption that Africa is this poor, desperate place, but really, when we think about Africa, what we should think about is the incredible resources of that continent. So, yes, it’s the diamonds of Sierra Leone, but throughout the continent the diamonds are plentiful. But in Somalia, in Ethiopia, it’s oil, the richness of the oil. It’s uranium. These vital resources, without which the U.S. economy would not function, flow from the African continent. So in spite of the neglect in terms of foreign policy historically, there is an increasing understanding of the strategic importance of Africa. Now, right now, the U.S. gets about 12 to 15 percent of its oil resources from Africa. That amount is meant to increase to 25 percent in the coming years, so by the end of this decade some say, even, 25 percent—a full quarter of U.S. oil—will be sourced from the African continent. That makes the region of strategic importance. That makes control, particularly of waterways, of shipping lines and shipping platforms strategically important for the U.S. And so we have to see the Somali attacks by the Bush administration as part of a larger vision of the U.S. to both control oil and other strategic resources. And we have to say, as well, to contain China, which is increasing as well in its interest in Africa.
Harris: About how many people are dying, before I continue. ... Are there any numbers attached to that?
Woods: It’s hard to say the numbers. The Somalis say it’s been hundreds that have been killed by these airstrikes, and we know there have been at least four airstrikes that have been made public so, you know, several hundred people killed as a result of these airstrikes. Now, some estimate the number as high as 300,000 of the Somalis that have been forced out of their homes. So those who are internally displaced and refugees—that’s a much higher figure.
Harris: Three hundred thousand.
Woods: Three hundred thousand is the number that’s estimated, of people that have been impacted by the political chaos in the past year.
Harris: And so, back to the United States, back to this election, back to the fact that Democrats and Republicans not only condoned it but probably profited from this over the years, should we really be as hopeful about Hillary or Obama or McCain? Will there really be a change in U.S. policy? Even though we know—you’ve set this up—even though we know that it’s inevitable that we’ll get more oil from this region of the world, we’ll want more control and we’ll have more interest in this area, is it likely that we’ll change any of this?
Woods: Well, James, that is the question of the era. I would have to say, you know, if you think about the control of multinational corporations, especially big oil, in U.S. foreign policy, it’s been exacerbated by the Bush administration, but it’s been a bipartisan phenomenon. So what we have to do is to figure out a way to get multinational corporations out of the decision-making process in U.S. foreign policy; that’s the first step.
But we have to also envision a different world than the Bush administration has envisioned, really, of us against them. We have to see ourselves as being one human community where what happens to one side of the community affects what happens to the other. And I think part of the energy of this election, regardless of who people vote for—right? Part of the excitement of bringing in new constituencies, new constituencies of young people, new constituencies of immigrants. ... I think the potential is ripe to say, “We need to really bring about the change that’s needed in this country.” A change that will first control the wanton abuse of multinational corporations in their quest for profits that have ignored people in search of profits. We have to recognize that there are democratic forces within countries around the world, and how do we, as the United States, reach out to those democratic forces in solidarity with those forces that are expanding free media, that are expanding voices, opposition, other political actors, and expanding the political space. How do we forge alliances with these democratic forces that are there, you know, but have been so ignored as we pursue a set agenda that’s about extracting resources at the expense of people?
So I think there is a new possibility for U.S. foreign policy; it is not just sort of a—I think it’s not just a Democratic/Republican thing. I think right now both parties are generating excitement and because of mavericks in those parties, people who are going in a different way. If we really want to go a different way when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, there really couldn’t be a better time because it’s been such a disastrous result. We see the Iraq war, we see the potential for a war in Iran, we see in so many regions of the world the flaws of this narrow-minded policy. And so I do think that the hope is in this open political space where new people, new actors, new voices, will be demanding a different way, will be demanding a more responsible, a more just, foreign policy. And whether it comes to Somalia or Africa, or Latin America, now is the opportunity to put forward a foreign policy that puts the needs of people first, that helps to build healthy societies around the world, that sustains this planet in light of climate change and global warming. I mean, these are the challenges of our time, that we can actually stand together as a global community and meet if we put forward a vision of foreign policy that leads to more responsible behavior than we’ve had to date.
Harris: And this sounds definitely like something you’re doing at the Foreign Policy in Focus group. Is that one of the principles of the organization?
Woods: Clearly. So, we are a think tank without walls. We have about 600 analysts and writers that write analyses of U.S. foreign policy. But what we do is, we critique, clearly, but we also put forward what we want. What is our vision of the world, you know? What are the values that can help sustain this planet? What does that look like when it comes to U.S. foreign engagement? And so that’s what we do. We publish, we do advocacy, we do media outreach to try to amplify the voices for a change and a more responsible foreign policy.
Harris: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Woods: James, the pleasure is mine. Thanks so much for all you do. Keep digging for the truth.
Harris: We didn’t plan that. We didn’t plan that. With Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.