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Trevino: Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Failure of Journalism

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Guest post from Josh Trevino:

The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia proceeds apace, and from all reports, it proceeds at a much faster clip than anyone — including me — expected. Western journalism is struggling, and failing, to keep up.

We know about the rapidity of the Ethiopian advance thanks to the news reports that filter out of the darkness of the Horn: the NYT’s stringer reports that the front line is now near the town of Wanlaweyn, well over halfway from the campaign’s starting-point of Baidoa (itself halfway from the Ethiopian frontier to the sea) to the prize, the Somali capitol of Mogadishu. (For reference, a map of Somalia is here; rather improbably, Wanlaweyn itself has a Meetup page.) Beyond this, details are sparse: journalism fails where journalists fear to tread, and so we are reduced to reading propaganda releases from the opposing sides — see, for example, and in an indication of the rather different values in this part of the world, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi bragging about the fatality rates amongst Islamist casualties — and the reports of the few Westerners on the ground. In Somalia’s case, the latter are mostly European aid workers and the odd United Nations official. Naturally, their reportage focuses upon things that affect them, and the wishes of the men with guns closest to them. Thus media from Islamist-controlled Mogadishu cites as its only two sources the Islamists — and the International Committee of the Red Cross. And so we see in the Washington Post unsourced passages telling us: “Aid workers said … thousands of civilians battered by drought, floods and now by rockets and mortars continued to flee villages in droves.” Worse: “United Nations officials warned of a dire humanitarian crisis inside Somalia, while fears remained high that Ethiopia’s campaign could have disastrous consequences across the Horn of Africa.”

This is absurd on several levels, beginning with the implicit contention that Somali suffering is only now beginning, and that the conquering advance of the Islamists there did not itself bring some measure of woe. Somalia is a wretched country, plagued with war, disease, anarchy and famine, and has been since the disintegration of the Siad Barre dictatorship fifteen years ago. (Even under Siad Barre, it was mired in decades of war and cruel repression.) The standard aid-worker/UN narrative — that this or that military action will result, or is resulting, in a “dire humanitarian crisis” or “disastrous consequences” — is therefore even more ridiculous than usual. (Recall, if you will, the predictions from the same quarters of a massive refugee/humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan prior to America’s invasion of that Islamist-ruled land.) In the spirit of fairness, we should allow that worrying about these things is their job; but one wishes they had evidenced similar concern over the Islamist ascendency prior to the Ethiopian intervention. That they did not is doubtless motivated by two factors: first, that the Islamists would kill those who complained overmuch; second, that the Ethiopians, being nominally Christian and supposedly American-backed (this last now based upon State Department statements), are more intellectually and socially acceptable targets to that particular set. (For vignettes of the average aid worker’s mindset on the United States in particular, see here.) As if on cue, erstwhile UN functionary Salim Lone arises in the pages of the International Herald Tribune to blame the whole mess on America — and to declare that the cure for Somalia’s woes was the salutary embrace of a vicious Islam.

Journalists should know better by now than to lend too much credence to these self-serving worries, the palliatives to which are, of course, more money for aid workers and UN officials. And they should know better than to disseminate photographs of supposed Somali “Transitional Federal Government soldiers” that are almost certainly Ethiopian soldiers — or at best, Somalis in Ethiopian uniforms. (These particular soldiers appear to be wearing uniforms very much like the Ethiopian Army BDUs I’ve seen.) Suffice it to say that no Somali faction has the luxury of good uniforms or well-kept troop transportation; nor would they be apt, if they did, to purchase them in field green. Here, again, we see the Western media’s credulous reliance on the bare scraps of information and self-interested speculation that it may lay its hands upon.

An extreme example of the sort of fatuous journalism this produces is this LAT piece, entitled, “Somalia could be Ethiopia’s quagmire.” The noun should be banned from any media discussion of any war henceforth; certainly its appearance within 48 hours of this campaign’s start suggests a profoundly simplistic framework for the understanding of war in the journalistic mind. The LAT’s Edmund Sanders interviews David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, and purveyor of some decidedly conventional wisdom. (And not just here: see, for example, his 2004 Foreign Service Journal piece on terrorism in east Africa and the Horn, in which he avers that Somalia is “a failed state where terrorist elements can move with impunity,” and then declares that “Somalis generally are not predisposed toward Islamic fundamentalism.” So much for that.) “The Ethiopians could get bogged down into a hopeless, long-term guerrilla campaign with enormous supply lines,” Shinn tells Sanders. One supposes they could — and one supposes they could crash triumphantly toward their objective, killing hundreds of Islamists along the way. That’s how the war has gone thus far, and though things could change, it seems odd to showcase hand-wringing hypotheticals — except that it validates the journalistic ideological predilection. Both Shinn and the author are apparently ignorant of the Ethiopians’ declared intention to lay siege to Mogadishu rather than engage in a draining occupation of the Islamist stronghold. Sanders also quotes one Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, describing him as “a moderate Muslim” — whatever that means — as stating that the “Ethiopian invasion … will open the door for p[the Somali Islamists].” Is this the Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed who was the Somali transitional government’s chairman of the parliamentary committee for constitutional affairs? It seems likely, but if Sanders knows or cares, he gives no evidence of either.

In the worldwide fight against Islamism, the number of combat fronts is small: Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Somalia on the first tier; and Algeria, the Philippines, and southern Thailand on the second. In that light, the Ethiopian attack upon the Somali Islamists is a profoundly significant story — of a piece with the signal struggle of our era — that our media professionals ought to be striving to understand and report upon. Instead, we get recycled narratives and canned agendas, substituting for the hard work of comprehension and communication that appear too far beyond the ken of our correspondent class. The pity is that those who suffer most from it are the objects of our policies that result.


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