The Father Of All Warlords

When American troops arrived in Somalia last December, Robert Oakley automatically became the country's chief warlord. For two years, clan leaders had fought each other with artillery and gun-mounted light trucks called "technicals." Then the U.S. Marines landed, with overwhelming firepower and armored vehicles that the locals quickly dubbed "big technicals." Oakley, the special U.S. envoy to Somalia, became a kind of proconsul, alternately cajoling and threatening the factions in order to stop the fighting, deliver food to the hungry and start rebuilding a nation. Many Somalis would like him to stay indefinitely. But Oakley, 61, plans to leave his post next month and return to private business. Somalia is only the latest hot spot in which he has served, after tours of duty in Vietnam, Beirut and Afghanistan. The lessons he has learned might be applied to other strife-torn countries, such as Bosnia, for which a special U.S. envoy was named last week. Chief among Oakley's rules: don't play god--or even warlord-for very long.

As Oakley sees it Washington has a limited, humanitarian mission in Somalia, "not a political revolution" to foment. "When we left Vietnam, the whole thing collapsed," he says. He argues that the American role in Somalia is simply that of "a catalyst" that can help Somalis tackle their own problems. "I tell them, you're going to have to sort it out," he says. "Because if you do that, there's some chance it may stick after we leave. If not, it won't."

To kick-start a "Somali solution," Oakley has prodded 14 major faction leaders into scheduling a national reconciliation conference on March 15. He personally pressured two key warlords, Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, to lock up their heavy weapons and talk peace. "Only the United States has the leverage," says Fathi Hassan, the Egyptian ambassador to Mogadishu. "When Oakley asked Ali Mahdi and Aidid to come to the embassy, they came to the embassy. He said, 'Shake hands,' so they shook hands. 'Kiss each other,' and they kissed each other. If he had said, 'Do a handstand,' they would have done that, too."

Yet Oakley is still walking a tightrope, straining to remain neutral. "Every side has been trying to get us involved in the fighting," he says. "We aren't going to be the meat in their sandwich, thank you very much." He believes Somalia will not stabilize until the factions' arsenals are reduced. The Americans cannot disarm the entire country, he says, but Oakley sees arms control as part of a secondary mission: "disempowering those who've achieved power through the barrel of a gun, to show that the period of combat is over." Marines have staged a series of spectacular arms raids, seizing 30 tons of munitions in one of them. Partly as a result, the power balance is beginning to shift. Ali Mahdi and Aidid are "acting more and more like politicians," Oakley says. "They recognize the competition ahead is more political and less military."

Somalia's new politics suit Ali Mahdi just fine. Formerly a rich hotelier, he has not prospered on the battlefield; though he claims to be president of Somalia, he is little more than the potentate of north Mogadishu. In a recent interview, he begged the Americans to stay on in Somalia until all weapons are collected. "We fought for the restoration of democracy and free elections, and Americans are the fathers of democracy," he said ingratiatingly. "So I hope Somalis can become like Americans." Later, when Oakley heard about Ali Mahdi's plea, he snorted: "And when he meets with the Italians, I bet Ali Mahdi tells them he wants Somalis to be like Italians."

General Aidid, Ali Mahdi's chief rival, is just as eager to cozy up to Oakley. In a recent speech, he said "the Americans should remain in Somalia as long as we need them." Oakley won't be lured into that quagmire. He admits that the 500 U.N. peacekeepers who were stationed in Mogadishu before the Americans landed "became objects of ridicule." But now the United Nations plans a far larger peacekeeping force: perhaps 20,000 troops.

Oakley's job will soon be finished; he will be succeeded by a low-profile U.S. Information Agency official named Robert Gosende. Oakley predicts a "seamless" transition to the U.N. phase, a process that is supposed to begin this month. "Somalis prefer to have Americans here. It makes them feel important," says Oakley. "But I tell them, 'You've got it wrong, because you've got to work with the U.N. over the long term.'" That leaves Washington's pro-consul in the uncomfortable position of having his success or failure depend on what comes after him. But Oakley is determined to avoid the "tar baby" of trying to do too much in Somalia, even if he has to risk the accusation of doing too little.