Under President Obama, Will Failed States Like Somalia Merit New Attention?

Threats like piracy and terrorism emanate from places like Somalia, but U.S. attention has been spotty.

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Nation-building has rarely enjoyed wide political support from any side of the political spectrum, particularly when it comes at the cost of American lives. President Clinton withdrew American forces from Somalia after the incidents described in the book Black Hawk Down. In 2000, George W. Bush famously campaigned on a platform opposed to nation-building. With Obama facing a deepening recession and a U.S. military in the throes of two wars, any serious new effort at rebuilding failed states may not be all that politically viable.

Whatever direction Rice and the Obama administration have in mind for U.S. failed-state strategy, it is likely to meet with resistance. "It will be hard politically, for instance, for those who opposed U.S. action against Iraq because it lacked United Nations Security Council authorization to advocate action against, say, Sudan, without similar U.N. approval," says Brett Schaefer, an expert on sub-Saharan Africa at the Heritage Foundation.

But the United States is not alone in its new focus on nations that fail at their most basic level. Britain, Canada, France, and Germany have each shown a renewed interest in such efforts. Three years ago, the United Nations formed the Peace Building Commission, which is aimed at helping countries, including many failed states, that are emerging from long-running military conflicts. Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, for example, are two of the program's first development beneficiaries.

And it was the United Nations that this winter authorized the use of force against the Somali pirates. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed the measure and called for international support against the pirates while acknowledging the root cause of the problem. "It's a symptom of the instability, the poverty, the lawlessness that have plagued Somalia for the past two decades," she said.

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