American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

April 1998

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 For faster downloading, Amb. Bridges' article is divided into the following linked sections
·  Part I ·  Part II ·  Part III
ABOUT Peter Bridges

U.S. envoy Peter Bridges affords us here an unusual personal look into the experience of a professional diplomat taking up the post, for the first time, of the American ambassador.

He went to a nation, in this instance, noted for its problems, including in more recent years, widespread violence and foreign intervention. We invite you to share his impressions and judgments. ~ Ed.

Envoy to Somalia

by Peter Bridges

Safir —ambassador
Safirka —the ambassador
Waxaan ahay safirka mareykanka —I am the American ambassador
~ Somali phrase book

T WAS MAY IN ROME. I wished it were Sunday and my wife and I were climbing Monte Gennaro. The intercom buzzed; I had a call from Robert Oakley in Washington. Bob Oakley was our ambassador to Somalia, in Washington for consultation. We had agreed that on his way hack to Mogadishu he would stop in Rome for lunch with people from the Italian foreign ministry. We and Italy each had a major interest in Somalia; we were both major aid donors; we often compared notes. Oakley said that he would be delayed in leaving Washington. I agreed to rearrange the luncheon for the following week. He went on to say that he had just learned that he was to leave his post, to head the State Department's anti-terrorism office. A big, hard job, I said; congratulations. Who's going to replace you in Somalia? I don't think they've given that any thought yet, he said . . . . Would you be interested?
   My question had come from simple curiosity and I had not expected his question in return. I thought for a minute. Yes, I said. I'd be interested. Good, said Oakley. Let me just tell a couple of people here. See you soon. He hung up, and after a bit that marvelous lady from Boston, my secretary Maria Lo Conte, came in and found me staring out the window. Spring fever, Peter? she asked. Not quite. What had I let myself in for?
   The year was 1984 and I was the deputy chief of mission, DCM in Foreign Service lingo, in the big Rome Embassy. I was the deputy to an ambassador, Maxwell Rabb, a Reagan political appointee, a lawyer with long experience who had been secretary to the Cabinet under President Eisenhower. He left to me the management of our oversized Embassy—which included representatives of twenty federal agencies besides the State Department and he also left me room to act as a senior American representative in Italy. He and I and other Embassy officers, and our seven consuls general in other Italian cities, had a wide range of personal contacts in government, politics, business, journalism, academia, and the arts. We sometimes suggested to Washington that ours was the best Embassy in Europe, and that Italy, in part thanks to our efforts, was our best ally. Sometimes, we sensed, Washington agreed.
   Rome diplomatic life was not all roses. Soon after I reached Rome in 1981 the Red Brigade terrorists kidnapped in Verona an American general, James Dozier. We worked closely with the Italians on the case, and after some weeks Jim Dozier was freed by an Italian police team. But in 1984 I lost a good friend and former Foreign Service colleague, Ray Hunt, who headed the Sinai peacekeeping force and who was gunned down on his way home from his Rome headquarters. He was the third friend of mine killed by terrorists.
   But what of Somalia? I had served on several continents, but never in Africa. Did that matter? The Somalis did not like to be lumped in with other Africans, and belonged to the Arab League as well as the Organization of African Unity. I knew a fair amount about Somalia and its relations with the outside world. More importantly, none of the senior Africanists in our Service seemed interested in going to Mogadishu. I confirmed my interest to Personnel, and soon it looked like I was the Department's candidate. But then I heard that a group of black Foreign Service officers had told Secretary of State Shultz that not enough black officers were being given ambassadorships. Mr. Shultz decided to put forward to the White House the name of Richard Fox, a black officer who had been ambassador to Trinidad. Dick Fox was a friend of mine and an able officer, which made the news easier to take. More news was forthcoming. In July, Dick Fox decided to retire. My name went forward.
   I doubted any Republican fat cat wanted to go to Somalia. Sure enough, the White House agreed to name me. But processing presidential appointments takes time, and the White House was busy with an election. On November 14, just after Mr. Reagan won a second term, he named me ambassador to Somalia. The Senate was in recess and I was urgently needed in Somalia— Oakley had left there in August—so I would proceed without delay and Senate confirmation hearings would come later. The Department gave me ten days to wind up my affairs in Rome, and the Sunday after Thanksgiving I flew to Washington to be sworn in and get briefed.

N THE NEXT TWO WEEKS I LEARNED ALL I COULD ABOUT AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN SOMALIA. Our aid was running at 120 million dollars a year, the largest set of American aid programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. About $25 million of this was military. We were supplying defensive weapons to the Somali military for use against the frequent incursions from Ethiopia, and a lot of other materiel and training. On the civilian side we were providing food for hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees from Ethiopia; we were providing financial aid to the government; we were involved in various economic development projects. My new Embassy had a very large staff, almost as many Americans — 218, plus 179 family members—as in the Rome Embassy. I knew something would have to be done about that.
   Early one morning a little T-39 jet flew me and David Newton, who was going out to head our Embassy in Baghdad, down to U.S. Central Command headquarters near Tampa. There General Robert Kingston and his staff briefed us on how CENTCOM would respond if the Soviets ever moved beyond Afghanistan, which they had occupied since 1979, toward the Indian Ocean. CENTCOM's area of responsibility included the Horn of Africa—Somalia, Ethiopia, little Djibouti—and in 1984 our military were emphasizing the strategic importance of the Horn.
   Moscow, too, put high value on the Horn of Africa. Soviet military involvement in Somalia had grown quickly after Somalia became independent in 1960. This had largely to do with Somalia's differences with neighboring Ethiopia. In 1897 the British, with a protectorate over Northern Somalia, agreed to Ethiopian control over the Ogaden, a huge area of grasslands which were traditional grazing areas for Somali clans. In the 1930s, Somalia had been Italy's base for the invasion of Ethiopia. There was no love lost between Somalis and Ethiopians.
   After independence the Somalis decided to build a strong military. In 1962 President Kennedy turned down a Somali request for arms, on grounds that we did not want to fuel regional conflicts--although we were supplying arms to Ethiopia. The Somalis went to Moscow, which responded positively. In 1969 the commander of Somalia's armed forces, Mohamed Siad Barre, made himself president, proclaimed "scientific socialism," and turned still closer to Moscow. By the 1970s there were at least three thousand Soviet military and civilian advisers in Somalia and the Soviets were building major bases there.
   But in 1977 Somalia went to war with Ethiopia, causing a quandary for Moscow which had a strong position in both countries. Moscow opted for Ethiopia, and Siad Barre expelled all the Soviet advisers in Somalia and turned West for aid. Eventually, in 1980, we had come to terms with him, and U.S. military assistance began. CENTCOM thought Somalia might be useful in case of conflict with Moscow farther east, but for now at least our military assistance was helping Somalia defend against Mengistu's Ethiopia.

FLEW FROM WASHINGTON TO ROME ON DECEMBER 6, and after two evenings with my family (and one last Sunday hike in the Apennines), I flew out of Fiumicino airport at midnight, bound for Mogadishu via Addis Ababa on an Alitalia Airbus. A year later Alitalia stopped flying to Somalia, after Somali debts to the airline reached a point which Alitalia's chairman Umberto Nordio found intolerable. He had been pressured, he told me, by the Italian government to keep on flying to the former colony. He had told officials that if it was a case of Italian national interest, they could reimburse him for the Somali debts. They would not; he stopped service. For now the Airbus still flew, but it took an odd route. Mogadishu was seven hundred miles southeast of Addis Ababa, but we took off and flew northeast. We could not cross the Ethiopian-Somali border because of the continuing, if intermittent hostilities. So we flew up to Djibouti, turned right, and started south down a thousand miles of Somalia. There were no clouds. I looked down on a reddish world with no villages or roads, only occasional vehicle tracks. There must be vegetation; I could not see it. There had been two years of drought. Here now was a little river full of tight bends, the Webi Shebeli, flowing down from the Ethiopian highlands. Soon it would dry up completely, and stay dry until it rained again in Ethiopia in April or May. We came down over a sprawling city, curved out over a blue ocean and in again, and landed. On the edge of the runway were carcasses of many planes: a Vickers Viscount, an ancient DC-3, an old brown Soviet biplane. I thought to myself, the eighth poorest country in the world.
   I was met by my old friend and new deputy, John Hirsch, our charge d'affaires these past four months since Oakley left, by Somali Chief of Protocol Abdi Haji Liban, and by the Embassy section chiefs. I had been wondering if Mogadishu would be like Panama, my only previous tropical post, always hot and humid. Well, this equatorial sun was hot, but it was not sultry, not with this strong northeast monsoon, which blew for half the year. Here now was my official sedan, a blue Oldsmobile, and my new driver, Scerif Ahmed Maio. I knew from Bob Oakley that he was a good man. We soon became friends, indeed comrades.
   The books and many briefing papers I had read about Somalia were lamentably short on pictures. I had met a number of Somali diplomats over the years. The people I saw now on the streets were that same race, tall and thin and dark-skinned, with features more European than Bantu. No one had told me to expect all the animals wandering the streetshandsome goats, ugly fat-tailed sheep, small thin brown cows. The streets were full of vehicles. The town was not unattractive; the walls were whitewashed; there were shade trees. We passed a large new mosque, then the incongruous Gothic cathedral which the Italians had built, and the still more incongruous Fascist arch with an inscription to Crown Prince Umberto who visited here in 1928. Scerif pointed out the decrepit chancery building of our Embassy, and we continued up the shore road almost to the edge of town, turned left up rutted sandy lanes, passed a dumpster in which goats and a couple of little boys were foraging, and here we were: my residence! I found it was a pleasant house, and not immodestly grand: three bedrooms, two baths, and a study at one end; a small dining room and big kitchen at the other; in between, a thirty-foot living room which had a large roofed patio on one side and, on the other, a small porch looking toward the ocean. From the patio an outside stairway went up to a roof terrace. There was a wide view of the blue ocean, the great brilliant sky, and this mainly one-and two-story capital.
   The next morning I woke at first light, before six, and it was cool. In my Potomac Valley Seniors Track Club shirt I ran down the sandy lanes to the beach. The ocean was beautiful, with small quiet waves lapping the land's edge. On the horizon, the sun's first rays shone from behind a range of clouds that must have been fifty miles out to sea. I ran down the beach, wide and hard at low tide. A boy was wading, though sharks took victims here. By the water's edge a tall thin Somali sat quietly, gazing at the sea and the glorious sun.
   After breakfast Scerif drove me to the most decrepit American Embassy chancery I had ever seen. John Blane, our ambassador to Rwanda, wrote me later that as Vice Consul at Mogadishu in 1958 he had leased this building for what was then our Consulate, thinking that with luck it might last ten years. In 1984 we were still there, and the place had never been renovated. At least we had a modern telecommunications system.
   Some months later our ancient building tried to kill me. One morning I went to call on the minister of agriculture. When I returned, my secretary Katherine Astala explained that the seat of my chair was punched in because a fifty-pound hunk of concrete had fallen through the ceiling onto it. Ms. Astala was as always imperturbable. I hoped she did not regret having joined me from Rome, where she had been Max Rabb's secretary. We made sure no more hunks were coming down, and asked the Department what they could do to speed up the plans for a new Embassy.
   I could not function as ambassador beyond our premises until I presented my credentials to the President. I busied myself getting to know my Embassy colleagues, and asking them to brief me further on us and Somalia. I told them, remembering troubles in Rome between Embassy officers from different Federal agencies, that I wanted them to work closely together no matter who paid their salaries. I added that I planned frank reports and recommendations to Washington. While I wanted this Embassy to work closely with Washington, I had no further ambitions and I did not need to play up to anyone.
   The Department had agreed that after presenting credentials I could return to Rome for a few days, to wind up my affairs. Perhaps I could get there in time for Christmas with my family. The Rabbs were planning a large farewell reception for me and my wife. The minister of interior, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, with whom Max Rabb and I had worked closely on terrorism and other matters—and who had kindly told me privately that he hoped one day I would return to Rome as American ambassador to Italy—was offering me a luncheon. (The minister himself later became President of the Republic.)

SPENT MY FIRST WEEKEND IN SOMALIA, and a number of later weekends, touring the countryside with Scerif by Oldsmobile and by Jeep. After one left behind the whitewashed villas of the wealthy—there were quite a few of these—one could believe that Somalia was as poor as reported. The countryside was arid, with scattered acacias, occasional villages of small huts, and now and then a string of loping camels with one thin boy in charge. Many Somalis were still nomads—over half the nation, it was said—but there were no real statistics. The nomads roamed for hundreds of miles through the bush in small family groups, with their camels, goats, and sheep. Their staple was camel's milk, which could be kept for days in charred containers.
   The loss of vegetation in Somalia was serious. There were too many animal mouths, and too many people on the land. I had no instructions from Washington on population. The Reagan Administration did not want to be criticized at home by those who opposed not just abortion but contraception. And many Somalis took what one might call a Reaganesque approach. In coming months Mohamed Siad Barre would tell me that the country was underpopulated. We need, he said, more young men for soldiers, to defend ourselves against Ethiopia. Educated Somalis pointed out to me that children were useful in nomad families. A boy of ten or twelve was entrusted with a string of camels and would go off alone with them for days in search of forage. Girls took care of goats and sheep and helped their mothers. I understood this, but people were turning away from nomadism, crowding into town. Mogadishu's population had been 75,000 in 1960 and now in 1984 it was at least a million, many or most of them without steady work. Everywhere were bars where young men sat all day drinking tea and talking, for want of anything else to do. Yet the average Somali woman, according to the best statistics I could find, still bore seven children.
   The unemployed young men worried me from the beginning. They were a recipe for trouble in any country—crime now in Mogadishu (there was a lot of burglary) and something worse in the future. The civil strife that broke out in Mogadishu several years later, after I had left, drew on these idle young men for its heedless, deadly gunners.

Continue reading Bridges, "Safirka (II)"

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