Robert Oakley, former Ambassador and
Special Envoy to Somalia
James Shear, Resident Associate,
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the
people who shape events.
ROBERT OAKLEY: There have been clearly mistakes made, both by the United States and by
the United Nations in some of the things they’ve gotten into which are beyond their capabilities,
not explaining to the American people what we were about or who was in command. Therefore,
there’s been a big backlash. But the US military establishment has learned a lot; the United
Nations has learned a lot.
DAVIDSON: UN peacekeeping missions are currently not very popular in the United States.
But my two guests this week on Common Ground say that’s because they’re not well
JAMES SHEAR: Many people are familiar with the litany of complaints. The United Nations
was too robust in Somalia, too weak and passive in Bosnia, too expensive in Cambodia, too cheap
in Angola, and too slow in Western Sahara. Perhaps Haiti was too fast in the sense of being a
quick fix. So it’s easy to complain about all these things with the clarity of hindsight. The
harder problem is really trying to make these operations effective, to work.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray
Davidson. There have always been Americans who question why we take part in UN peacekeeping
missions in seemingly remote parts of the world. The issue really came to the fore when we saw on
television the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in
Somalia. Former US Ambassador Robert Oakley was a special envoy to Somalia, and I asked him why
that peacekeeping mission turned out so disastrously.
OAKLEY: You have to understand several things. The first phase of the Somalia
operation—which was limited, that President Bush initiated—was handled very, very well. But
President Bush had a very experienced national security team. He fought the war in Kuwait against
the Iraqis. They’d been in a number of other things abroad, and they understood exactly what they
were about. And we were in control of it. The Clinton team came in. They didn’t have the same
understanding of the world. They didn’t have the same understanding of how to coordinate the
national security operation. They relied too heavily upon the United Nations in this particular
case, although the US forces out there that got into trouble were under US military command the
entire way doing what Washington wanted them to do and not what they were being told to do by the
United Nations. But this was never understood by the American people, so there’s a tremendous
backlash against the United Nations.
DAVIDSON: So you think the Clinton administration, at least in the beginning, failed to
provide the leadership that was needed to get the American support?
OAKLEY: They didn’t explain clearly enough to the American people, or they didn’t respond
to questions from the members of Congress about what we were doing in Somalia. So no one
understood it, nor did they explain the danger. So when people got killed all of a sudden in
October, there was a huge negative response. But it was somewhat similar to what the Reagan
administration had gone through when the Marine barracks was blown up in Lebanon, including a
reversal of policy and a withdrawal of US forces.
DAVIDSON: In hindsight, where were some areas of failure in Somalia?
OAKLEY: One was too ambitious a mission for the UN force, in terms of the territory
covered (which is all of Somalia), whereas the US-led force coalition of 25 countries was only
covering the southern part.
DAVIDSON: That included the capital of Mogadishu?
OAKLEY: It included the capital of Mogadishu, but they only had a third as many forces to
do three times as much territory. The second problem was that the mandate, the mission if you
will, was much more widespread, much more intrusive, much more apt to produce a negative Somalia
backlash and to get some of the factions and warlords actively opposing it, which it did. Here
again, with less force they were less intimidated by the United Nations. With the United States
only peripherally involved, they didn’t feel they had to fear us. Some of the other units they
thought were easy, and so it produced a clash just at the wrong time.
DAVIDSON: Part of that mandate, which you said is too broad, was in nation-building. Is
that just too broad a mandate for a peacekeeping force?
OAKLEY: You have to be very careful about how much you want to impose upon another
country in terms of external values and institutions. In Cambodia, they started off the same way,
but realized they were biting off more than they could chew. Therefore, they cut back on the
mandate, were not so intrusive, and didn’t antagonize the Khmer Rouge to the point where they had
a pitched battle. The Khmer Rouge became the enemy of the United Nations everywhere. That came
out with relative success. In Somalia people didn’t understand that; and Haiti, to the contrary,
is being handled very well. Again, as in Somalia, the United States led an international
coalition in the first phase and then turned it over to the United Nations. But this time, the
turnover was very well handled by the United Nations and the United States. And it’s been a very
DAVIDSON: My other guest today is James Schear, a resident associate at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, where he focuses on multinational
peacekeeping and field operations. He has also served as consultant to the UN
under-secretary-general and to the UN Secretariat. Dr. Schear agrees with Ambassador Oakley that
the United States has learned a lot from recent peacekeeping missions.
SCHEAR: We learned that we have to have modest expectations when we go into a war-torn
country or a situation of active conflict. We have to keep our objectives practical and realistic
and don’t expect too much of the United Nations or the coalition forces that go in. They can
accomplish specific objectives like providing humanitarian relief and saving lives, but some
conflicts are not right for intervention. Others may be intractable and very difficult to sort
out by external power. Sometimes we exaggerate in our own minds what we can accomplish. On the
other hand, total disengagement, total isolation is ill-advised.
In the long term it does not serve our interests if we see expanding patterns of chaos and
violence in the world. We gain a lot from constructive engagement. We’re the world’s biggest
overseas investor. A lot of our jobs in the United States are dependent on export. A lot of
people who buy mutual funds are doing so worldwide. We are the generator of the world’s greatest
number of tourists. We’re connected with the world in various ways. So we have to avoid the
extremes of overengagement and isolation and try to find that practical middle ground.
DAVIDSON: What defines a successful peacekeeping operation? Do you have some examples of
where you think it has worked really well?
SCHEAR: I think that traditional peacekeeping in the sense of maintaining a cease-fire
between warring factions has worked fairly well in places like the Golan Heights and in Cyprus,
even though those have turned into open-ended engagements and might well devolve back into
conflict if the third-party presence in those places were to be abruptly withdrawn. In the
multidimensional area, that is to say peacekeeping operations with civilian and military
components which aim at implementing a peace agreement, the United Nations had good success in
places like El Salvador, Namibia, Cambodia (to a degree) and certainly in Mozambique. In those
cases, the main objective was to get a country turning a corner, if you will, in its security
problems to begin to move toward sustainable development. But again, we have to keep our
objectives practical and our attitudes realistic about these operations. We can’t expect
miracles. It takes a long time for a war-torn country to get over its traumas. And these
operations can help in a transition, but we have to keep a concerted effort and pay attention to
those operations and not simply think the United Nations can go in and solve the problem for us.
DAVIDSON: Why do you think there are such controversies stemming from the UN performance
SCHEAR: First of all, a lot of people complain about specific cases where the United
Nations has underperformed (as they see it) in some fashion. Many people are familiar with the
litany of complaints. The United Nations was too robust in Somalia, too weak and passive in
Bosnia, too expensive in Cambodia, too cheap in Angola, and too slow in Western Sahara. Perhaps
Haiti was too fast in the sense of being a quick fix. So it’s easy to complain about all these
things with the clarity of hindsight. The harder problem is really trying to make these
operations effective, to work. It’s a learning process. We’ve learned more in the last three
years with some of our successes and failures, and that gives me some optimism for the future.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Oakley also cites the UN Security Council in creating difficulties
for the peacekeepers. The five permanent members of the Security Council include the United
States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and France.
OAKLEY: Sometimes the Security Council produces political resolutions rather than those
which can actually be effective operationally on the ground. There has to be better communication
between those who really understand a country and those who are going to be responsible for the
operations in the country and the people at the political level in the Security Council who
sometimes seem to be making statements or passing resolutions that are more for public
consumption than they are for operational effectiveness.
DAVIDSON: And the Security Council does include the United States. So the United States
has been involved in creating these mandates, which are sometimes impossible for the peacekeepers
to carry out.
OAKLEY: That’s right, frequently. In the case of Bosnia, for example, while we’ve been
very, very critical of the UN performance (the UNPROFOR), we have to understand that the Security
Council (which included the United States) voted 85 separate resolutions which gave guidance to
the people in the field. How can you operate if you have 85 separate resolutions?
DAVIDSON: Is there any way to draw lessons from past peacekeeping experiences because
each mission is so different?
OAKLEY: They are different, but there are a lot of similarities. The proper lessons are
being drawn. The United Nations is now working to set up a core headquarters unit, which I think
is very important. They sent out a core headquarters unit for Haiti four months in advance—there
was none for Somalia at all—that’s why the transition went smoothly (one of the reasons).
They’re learning about not taking on such big operations, not moving into areas where there’s a
high risk of violence. If there is, having the UN Security Council ask someone else to undertake
it—as they’ve asked NATO to undertake the operation in Bosnia and as they asked the United
States to undertake the initial operation in Haiti. That’s the way to do it. Then you can move
down after the violence has dissipated or the risk of conflict has been reduced. Then you can
move to a UN operation much more successfully, which has happened in Haiti.
In Bosnia, they’ve gone the other way. They started off with a UN operation that got in trouble,
and they had to go to something much bigger (which is NATO). If they had started the other way
around, it might have required a much lower degree of NATO involvement, then followed by the
DAVIDSON: I’m talking on this edition of Common Ground with Robert Oakley, who is
currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. Ambassador Oakley
served as special envoy to Somalia from 1992 to 1994 and as assistant to the president for the
Middle East and South Asia on the National Security Council. He’s been director of the State
Department’s Office of Combating Terrorism and served as ambassador to Pakistan, Somalia, and
My other guest today is James Schear, currently resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. Previously he served as policy consultant to the UN under-secretary-general,
Yasuchi Akashi, and has consulted for the UN Secretariat on nonproliferation, regional security,
and other issues.
Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Please listen at the end of
the broadcast when I’ll give you details on how to order. Common Ground is a service of
the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
One concern for many Americans when it comes to UN peacekeeping operations is, who is really in
charge of US troops? Ambassador Oakley admits there has been confusion in the past about who
commands the American soldiers.
OAKLEY: The US troops have gotten into trouble in Somalia while under US command the
whole way, including US operational control, which is what people are often talking about. I
personally, in the present situation, would prefer that US combat troops not be under the
operational control of someone else in a UN peacekeeping operation. It’s different if it’s
something like NATO, where we’ve frequently been under the operational control of other units,
although we have retained the overall command of our forces. If you can’t go along with a
situation like that—and you have to have everyone on the same sheet of music—then as far as
other countries are concerned, they should not participate. At the moment, the UN peacekeeping
operations can include the United States in a supporting role—in headquarters, logistics,
communications, command, and control (things of this kind)—without actually having US fighting
units involved in UN peacekeeping. Given the negative political reaction, they need to build a
greater capability on the part of the United Nations; and they need to build greater confidence
on the part of the United States’ public and Congress and in the United Nations.
DAVIDSON: Do you see a change in the foreseeable future in the public profile of the
United Nations, particularly the peacekeeping forces within the United States? Is this kind of a
cyclical thing with US attitudes?
OAKLEY: My guess is that after the elections it will certainly begin to change. As I say,
the United Nations has become much more prudent and, therefore, much more effective in the
operations it has carried out, including the one in Haiti. The United States has become more
prudent in what it is asking the United Nations to do. I think this will gradually change. Yes.
DAVIDSON: Should UN peacekeepers be able to do more than just defend themselves, because
it seems like sometimes they’re sitting ducks out there.
OAKLEY: It depends. You have to have enough force. In my judgment you need to have enough
force to, if need be, intimidate the potential enemy so they won’t become your enemy. You
certainly have to have enough to respond effectively and decisively in the case that you are
challenged—not just politically but challenged militarily. You have to be able to defend
yourself in the sense of putting the enemy down but not declaring war, which may be a specific
clash of a specific place on a specific date. After that’s over, you go back to whoever it was
that you fought with and say, now wait a minute. This was not a declaration of war from our side.
We trust it was not a declaration of war from your side. Because if it is, we’re stronger than
you are; and you’re going to get the worst of it. Let’s declare this an accident and go on and do
business with each other. That’s the way you have to approach it. But you have to be able to hit
hard if you’re challenged.
DAVIDSON: James Schear says the concerns about command of US troops are legitimate.
SCHEAR: The last thing we would want is for some incompetent commander to order our own
troops into difficult situations, whether or not that commander is an American, in fact. We
shouldn’t exclude that there might be incompetent US commanders, after all. But foreign command
is a sensitive issue, because we don’t always know about the training and background. There are
many countries that have superb military establishments with very capable commanders, and my
feeling is it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. With respect to peacekeeping, it’s
important to note that US forces in a strict legal sense never are commanded by UN commanders,
they are controlled for certain limited purposes in a tactical sense, but the president is still
the Commander-in-Chief. He alone, through his Executive Branch, has the authority to discipline
units, to deal with personnel issues, and to deal with very major issues concerning use of force.
These units which are attached to UN operations only operate under the terms that are agreed to
in advance by the United States.
The secretary-general cannot send forces to places or ask them to use force in ways that aren’t
already agreed to in advance by the United States. And the United States can withdraw those units
at any time. So I sometimes think of the secretary-general as somewhat like an orchestra
conductor who is leading the band forward, but with a script that is largely written by other
people. He’s not an international analog to a US Commander-in-Chief. That’s an important
distinction we have to keep in mind.
DAVIDSON: The secretary-general of the United Nations wrote a book called Agenda for
Peace. In that, he did call for the creation of standby forces. What exactly would those
forces do, and is the United States interested in getting involved in that?
SCHEAR: The concept of a standby force is to have countries earmarking advance units that
might pull together in a moment of crisis to provide a capability to quickly intervene in a
conflict, to establish a basis for a peacekeeping operation, to implement the early phases of a
peace agreement, for example. I think it’s a useful concept. It certainly commends itself to
better training and cooperation among the countries that might be part of the standby force.
Ultimately, the United States or any other country is not giving away it’s sovereignty to decide
when and how these forces are used. They are always provided with the understanding that the host
government, the government responsible, has to approve the specific uses.
So from the UN standpoint, they’re kind of like American Express travelers’ checks. Each use has
to be endorsed twice, really, before you can cash the check. It is useful to have a standby
force, but I don’t think it necessarily is a panacea. In the case of Rwanda, for example, the
secretary-general had over 40 countries which had, in principle, committed standby forces; and he
went to each and everyone of them and asked them, “Will you contribute part of a standby force to
go into Rwanda?” The answer was no. So we don’t necessarily have a better capability to react
DAVIDSON: Is the issue of peacekeeping misused in your opinion in the US Congress or in
SCHEAR: The peacekeeping issue has been politicized excessively, and that’s unfortunate.
One can look at the cases of Bosnia and Somalia and understand why. US interests were at stake in
both those countries in different ways. So I’m not surprised by the debate over peacekeeping.
It’s become a more expensive proposition. It’s still very small in relation to the amount of
money we spend on other priorities, such as our own defense budget. But you have an international
activity that’s gone from maybe several hundred million dollars a year to three or four billion,
and it’s not surprising that Congress would pay more attention to peacekeeping and demand higher
standards. That’s all to the good.
I do think the criticism ought to be constructive rather than destructive. Often, what’s going on
is certain parties feel as though they can wage good domestic political warfare by attacking the
United Nations. That’s unfortunate. The United Nations is certainly an imperfect institution.
It’s made mistakes. It ought to be called on mistakes. But bear in mind that the United Nations
is not simply an international secretariat, but also a collection of member states. They have to
work together effectively too.
DAVIDSON: Ambassador Oakley, why do you think peacekeeping has become such a political
hot potato, particularly in Washington?
OAKLEY: It’s been misunderstood. There have been clearly mistakes made, both by the
United States and by the United Nations in some of the things they’ve gotten into which were
beyond their capabilities, not explaining to the American people what we were about or who was in
command. Therefore, there’s been a big backlash. But the US military establishment has learned a
lot; the United Nations has learned a lot. Everyone is going to work more carefully within their
limitations to understand the situation before they get into it. But this has not yet dawned upon
some of the political leadership, and they find it convenient to attack the United Nations.
That’s a nice political symbol.
DAVIDSON: Do you think we’ve expected too much from peacekeeping?
OAKLEY: We have expected too much. We’ve been too unrealistic about it, as has the United
Nations. In some cases, we’ve not provided the resources. We have to understand though that the
United States has a veto in the Security Council and many of the resolutions which have started
peacekeeping operations are ones that we’ve worked on, ones that we’ve voted for. Then in some
cases, they’ve been unrealistic; and the UN operation on the ground has not had the means to
carry them out. Therefore, that has created a lot of confusion. It has created some failures, and
people have sort of turned against it. Hopefully, over time they’ll work back.
DAVIDSON: A very general question. Is peacekeeping in the interest of the United States?
OAKLEY: It very definitely is. It’s a means of collective security. We’ve always relied
on collective security. We like to work with as many others as possible—NATO, the Second World
War, Korea, Desert Storm. It’s no different. Others wish to work with us. We’d like to work with
DAVIDSON: James Schear, do you think peacekeeping is in the interest of the United
SCHEAR: Peacekeeping is in the interest of the United States. It meets a range of
interests that we may have. In some cases, it might be a national security interest, if the
operation goes into a country where we have major security interests at stake. It can also meet a
humanitarian interest, if the country is farther away and not part of our traditional alliance
structure. For example, in Africa where we can save lives. In other cases, there may not be a
compelling interest either national security or otherwise, and I think in those instances we
ought to be looking to cooperate with other countries who might have a clear interest and provide
support and backup for what they do. So I think it’s a sliding scale. As a broad statement, I
would say peacekeeping can be helpful. It’s an option between the extremes of doing nothing or
doing it all by ourselves. But it’s not a cure-all, not a panacea, it’s a selective instrument
that we use along with other instruments to deal with security problems.
DAVIDSON: That’s James Schear, resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. He served as consultant to the UN under-secretary-general and to the UN
Secretariat on nonproliferation and regional security issues. My other guest today has been
Robert Oakley, the special envoy to Somalia from 1992 to 1994, for which he received the
President’s Meritorious Service Award. Ambassador Oakley is now a visiting fellow at the
Institute for National Strategic Studies. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Stay tuned on the next edition of Common Ground when we’ll take an inside look at the Arab
WOMAN: When Islam fourteenth century came, the woman used to have the rights that we are
asking for nowadays. Because [it] gave her the right to learn, to participate in every sector of
DAVIDSON: That’s on the next Common Ground.
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