How Barack Obama Can Bring Stability to Somalia

As a state, Somalia has racked up more failures than any other on the planet. So said Susan Rice, soon to be Barack Obama's United Nations ambassador, in a Brookings Institution report she coauthored last year. Since then, Somalia's troubles have only worsened: 1.3 million internally displaced people roam the country scavenging for food; the president quit last month; and hard-line Islamist militias, having already taken control of Somalia's south and central regions, now stand poised to tighten their grip on the capital, Mogadishu. Some 10,000 innocent civilians have been killed since January 2007, pirates are terrorizing the coasts, and last month Somalia entered its 19th year without a functioning government. In many ways, Somalia is hardly a state at all.

But as a foreign-policy initiative, Somalia's problems offer Obama a unique chance to sketch a bold path forward in the region. After the Bush administration backed the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, helping to overthrow the moderate Islamic Courts Union, Somalia descended into war, and the Bush policy radicalized an ever-larger portion of the population. But Obama, whose world view embraces the idea of talking to one's enemies, could shift course on this policy failure and increase stability by re-engaging with the Islamists, and in particular with the young fighters who make up the ranks of al-Shabab, the Islamists who have been gaining strength over the last two years and continue to drag Somalia further into chaos.

The window of opportunity for Obama is small and fragile. But two things have happened in Somalia that could make the task easier. First, the hated Ethiopian occupation of Somalia that fueled the growth of al-Shabab is over. Second, Abdullah Yusuf resigned in December as president, paving the way for more moderate and inclusive figures to have greater say. Still, Obama's policy prescriptions would have to be specific, but not overstated. He could temporarily suspend U.S military C-130 flights over Somalia, now a near-constant presence, thereby sending a message that a future policy will not have as its central piece a military component that alienates the very people America needs to bring to the table. Obama could also consider suspending al-Shabab from the terror list temporarily to prove that, as he said in his inaugural speech, America will hold out its hand if its enemies "unclench their fists." A third path would be to open back-channel negotiations with as many hard-line factions as necessary to bring them into talks. Key to any strategy would be a quiet outreach effort to Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, considered the father of Somalia's Islamist movement and likely sufficiently powerful to bring enough radicals to heel to make any diplomacy worthwhile. Finally, as Rice hinted in her confirmation hearings, America needs to begin to fashion a regional approach that would address the longstanding border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea as part of any move to end Somalia's isolation.

It won't be easy. Al-Shabab poses urgent security concerns to the United States and many of Somalia's neighbors. Some of the group's hard-line leaders have connections to Al Qaeda. More worryingly, Somalia has started to attract American jihadists, including several from Minnesota who traveled there recently to fight. An unknown number may still be training in Shabab training camps in the south, and it's unclear whether their long-term goals lie in Somalia or back in Minnesota. Yet Obama, already beset by doubts about his Muslim heritage, isn't likely to make conciliatory talks with Islamists in Africa his first move. "He would be walking into a trap if he did anything that could lead to charges of being soft on terror," says Sally Healy, a Somalia expert at Chatham House.

But the potential rewards of such a strategy are tantalizing. The Bush administration made a policy out of talking to its enemies in Iraq, including many who had killed American soldiers, and as a result Iraq is calmer and more stable. With two wars already on his plate, Obama would do well to quell a rising storm in Africa's Horn, and the sooner the radicals are tamed, the less likely it is that they'll continue to splinter into the kinds of factions that could eventually return Somalia to the days when warlords ruled the streets. The alternative to engagement, says Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group's Somalia team, is that "by the end of the year, we could be talking about over 100 armed groups in Somalia." A further descent into warlordism is likely only to help the spread of radical Islam in the region. So while few doubt that a strategy of engaging with the Islamists could be risky, for Somalia and the rest of the Horn the riskiest option may also be the best.