Democrats and the 'Fight Against Western Imperialism'

At a recent  Bernie Sanders rally in Minneapolis, Representative Ilhan Omar endorsed him for President with a rousing declaration that Sanders “will fight against Western imperialism.”  Yes, you read correctly -- “western imperialism.”  And Sanders’ supporters attending cheered.

Who would have thought it possible that a U.S. presidential candidate, from one of the nation’s two main parties would accept, and do nothing to correct or outright rebuff an endorsement that included an exhortation to “fight against Western imperialism”?  Or that other Americans would cheer such a statement.  But it was “Bernie,” and he reveled in the introduction.

Do both Representative Omar and Senator Sanders need to be reminded of how this nation voluntarily chose to “extend its national power through diplomacy and military force” -- as dictionaries define “imperialism” --- to rescue her native Somalia and its people?  A history lesson is in order.

Ilhan Omar was just eleven in 1992, having already fled with her family to Kenya, when years of drought and civil war produced a famine in Somalia that had starved an estimated one-quarter of all children under the age of five.  She and her family would be among the fortunate.  The United Nations announced that 1.5 million Somali people faced imminent starvation unless help was provided quickly.  At the same time, anarchy and gunfire exchanges among rival clans in the capital and port city of Mogadishu prevented safe docking and unloading of food ships.

In an international effort to aid the Somali people, President George H.W. Bush announced a U.S. humanitarian relief operation called Provide Relief on August 14 of that year.  In response to the crisis, the military organized a task force, set up headquarters in Kenya (which bordered Somalia to the southwest) and maintained refugee camps for fleeing Somalis in search of food and peace.  Provide Relief would be a joint U.S. humanitarian operation involving all the military services -- Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.

Air transport played a major role in the operation.  Before the end of August, eight USAF C–130 Hercules and five C–141 Starlifter transport aircraft were in Kenya.  Besides regular Air Force units, the airlift involved volunteers from the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard C–130 units.  Eventually, at least 14 airlift wings, two composite wings, and eight airlift groups participated in Provide Relief airlift missions.

The Starlifters flew from Europe and the continental United States via Egypt to Kenya.  The C–141s transported relief cargo from Mombasa 325 miles to Wajir, a staging base in eastern Kenya near the refugee camps only 20 miles from the Somali border.  Trees had to be cut down along the airfield before the large cargo planes could land.

Each C–141 carried about 22 tons of food, which increased to 30 tons after military personnel determined Wajir’s runways could support the additional weight.  The Starlifters could not fly beyond Wajir because most Somali landing strips were too small to support them.  By August 30, the Starlifters had delivered some 1,133 tons of food and relief supplies on 58 flights.

To extend the airlift into more isolated areas of Somalia, Provide Relief officials relied on more than 40 smaller C–130 Hercules aircraft.  The initial C–130s arrived in Kenya on August 20 and the first to land in Somalia arrived at Belen Huen (Belet Uen) on August 28.  Other Somali towns reached by the C–130s were Baidoa, Bardera, Oddur (Hudor), and Beladweyne.  Some airfields were unpaved and only 4,000 feet long, proving a challenge for the C–130s, each carrying 10 to 15 tons per flight.  Crews unloaded the aircraft in stifling heat with engines running to limit time on the ground.  Despite such precautions, snipers fired on a C–130 aircraft at Belet Huen on September 18, temporarily halting the missions.

Despite poor airfields, frequent tire changes, and interruptions from gunfire, America’s airmen, in particular, would endanger their own lives to deliver the equivalent of 28 million meals in the first 42 days.  Food included rice, sorghum, wheat, flour, cooking oil, salt, bottled water, beans, and peas, with transports also delivering medical and cooking supplies.  Between September 1, 1992, and early January 1993, C–130s transported over 4,000 tons of relief supplies in Kenya and Somalia.

Airlift was only part of Operation Provide Relief.  Tons more of food came by ship to relief agencies at the ports of Mombasa and Mogadishu.  Tragically, marauding armed gangs from various rival clans stole food in Somalia from relief agencies, which were often forced to make “protection” payments.  To insure more equitable food distribution, President Bush announced a new operation called Restore Hope on December 4, 1992.  Armed U.S. military forces would suppress the gangs and help relief agencies get food to those needing it most.

Though less strictly humanitarian than Provide Relief, Restore Hope had the same goals, and the two operated simultaneously until the end of February 1993.  By then, almost 2,000 Provide Relief flights had delivered over 23,000 tons of cargo to Kenya and Somalia to feed hundreds of thousands of people.  Thousands of tons of relief supplies also arrived by sea and air from other nations.

The operation was successful in stopping the famine and saving an estimated 200,000 Somali lives, as well as de-escalating relentless civil war into low-level, local skirmishes.  By the time Restore Hope ended on May 4, 1993, the international Somali relief effort had become the largest humanitarian operation since the Berlin Airlift.

Yes indeed, sure sounds like “Western imperialism.”  As an airman assigned to one of the Air Force wings contributing forces to the humanitarian efforts in Somalia, her words touched a nerve.  Ilhan Omar should be leading flag-waving 4th of July parades in gratitude for what this nation did for her, her family, and her Somali people instead of campaigning with slogans to “fight against Western imperialism.”

Omar’s declaration that Sanders “will fight against Western imperialism” is, of course, not the first time she has taken potshots at U.S. and allies’ policies abroad.  She has been taken to task for perceived anti-Semitic remarks, her callous “some people did something” 9/11 remarks, as well as her criticism of Israel.  For Omar, this full-throated “fight Western imperialism” declaration was “par golf” for her short tenure in office.  Her endorsement of Sanders was also a clear break from Minnesota’s Democratic delegation, which backs Senator Amy Klobuchar's more moderate campaign.  People have come to expect such behavior from Omar, and she will have to face voters in 2020.

The proverbial silver lining to such ill-conceived political rhetoric is that the rest of us must know the Democratic party establishment has to be seriously alarmed over one of its front-runners’ campaigning with themes so antithetical to both the foundational and still held ethos of this nation.  Even rank and file Democrats know slogans like “fighting Western imperialism” -- from “Bernie” or from anyone -- just will not fly with America’s voters.

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