A career Foreign Service officer, Peter Bridges served the United States in Panama, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Italy before becoming, in his final assignment, ambassador to Somalia. (The books title is Somali for ambassador.) Like most memoirists, naturally enough, he seeks to portray himself as reasonable and competent. Bridges is particularly convincing in this effort. Among other things, he turned himself into something of a scholar of Somali history and culture; he demonstrates a familiarity with a far-flung literature here, much of it in Italian.
Bridges writes in the late 1990s about his tenure as ambassador from 1984 to 1986. Most readers will be aware that Somalia, five years or so after his departure, plunged into an abyss of civil war and famine from which it has yet to recover. Indeed, it is accurate to say there is no such thing as Somalia, or at least a Somali state, anymore; rather, a congeries of breakaway regional movements and warlord-driven zones. It is doubtless this knowledge that gives Bridges narrative its sad and rueful tone, as he describes an already bleak situation which would get only worse. Though Bridges candidly admits that neither he nor anyone else predicted the extent of the tragedy, he records some apparent premonitions. He quotes from his diary of the time: . . . we were fortunate to serve in Somalia now, because a decade from now was likely to be much worse.
The world of the mid-1980s was, of course, a very different one. No U.S. ambassador, certainly not one serving under Ronald Reagan, could avoid the constraints imposed by the realities and perceptions of the Cold War. Somalia had been a virtual Soviet client, allowing Soviet naval and military bases to be constructed in the 1970s, then abruptly broke off the relationship and turned westward, presumably in hopes of defeating arch-enemy Ethiopia, at that time a favorite of Moscow. Bridges writes of his wary response to constant Somali aid requests, including military aid. Not much detail is provided, but one wonders how much U.S. (as well as Soviet) military hardware wound up fueling the internecine bloodshed of the 1990s.
It was also, apparently, a more innocent time for diplomats, hard as that may be to believe. Bridges ran alone every morning along the streets and beaches of Mogadishu. Though he occasionally worried about being targeted, especially after the Libyans came to town, this did not prevent private seaside getaways with his wife, and so on. Imagine his feelings when learning of the devastating 1998 bomb attacks on American embassies in next-door Kenya and Tanzania.
Bridges had constant encounters with Somalias leader from 1969 to 1991, the late and and unlamented Mohamed Siad Barre. The Somali dictator possessed few virtues, certainly no redeeming ones; he was brutal, corrupt, and, given his Cold War flip-flops, unreliable in the bargain. As the author notes, the pressures building in the thoroughly undemocratic Siad Barre era can be considered the groundwork for the the disaster which ensued. To his credit, Bridges quietly cultivated contacts with many other honorable Somalis, some of whom perished in the civil war.
And to his credit as well, Bridges ends the book on a note of cautious optimism, even as he states again some seemingly intractable realities like the long-term ecological crisis (overpopulation of humans and animals, deforestation, desertification) in the Horn of Africa. In particular concerning foreign aid, he concludes that we have finally learned that, in general, small is beautiful or, better said, more likely to succeed. The days of grandiose showcase projects (driven by the Cold War, he might have added), he hopes, are over.
In all, this is an erudite and readable, even oddly charming, introduction to a very unfortunate place.
Kenneth P. Vickery is an African specialist who teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.