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The State Department’s Disingenuous Defiance of Congress on Somalia

Tony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in the virtual U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain]

On Dec. 23, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act into law. Despite fierce lobbying from the State Department, Congress incorporated major elements of the Somaliland Partnership Act. Specifically, the Act requires the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Defense to submit an annual report to Congress detailing assistance, security assistance, and security initiatives in Somaliland. Further, it requires the State and Defense Departments to complete by June 2023 a feasibility study on enhanced security cooperation between Washington and Hargeisa. Congress overruled fierce State Department lobbying behind the scenes against provisions treating Somaliland as distinct from other Somalia federal member states.

The Somaliland provisions’ bipartisan congressional support is a recognition both of reality on the ground and the fact that closer, distinct U.S. ties with Somaliland are a U.S. national interest. The State Department can pretend that Somalia is a unitary, functioning state and believe that Somaliland is just a federal state within it, but the reality is that Somaliland has been separate from the rest of Somalia for longer than it has been part of it. Not only is the political culture different — Somaliland has a much more mature democracy — but history also matters. The Isaaq clan that forms the majority of Somaliland’s population suffered genocide at the hands of Siad Barre, Somalia’s Cold War-era dictator. To demand Somalilanders subordinate themselves to Mogadishu is akin to saying Bosnians or Kosovars should trust their fate to Serbian nationalists in Belgrade.

Aligning Interests

It is against this backdrop that the National Defense Authorization Act prescriptions make greater sense. Former U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto and Larry Andre, Jr., his successor, might seek favor in Mogadishu by acting as the voice of Somali irredentism in order to ingratiate themselves to local elites who have never subjected themselves to elections. But they have only themselves to blame. By funneling all aid through Mogadishu and allowing decision-makers there to siphon it off and weaponize it, they reinforced the perception in Somaliland that subordinating themselves to Mogadishu would be suicide. 

As the U.S. military surveys Berbera airport, one of the longest landing strips in Africa, and Somaliland’s nearby deepwater port, the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu continues with its passive aggressive resistance to developing ties with Somaliland. U.S. diplomats seldom travel to the region on their own, and usually do so only when forced to visit accompanying delegations. Security is no excuse: There has not been a terror attack in Somaliland in 15 years, whereas in Somalia they are a near-weekly occurrence. Hargeisa is so safe money changers leave stacks of cash unguarded while they take lunch. (My daughter visited without a problem when she was nine years old.) Mogadishu, meanwhile, remains among the most crime-ridden and insecure cities in the world.   

Andre’s animosity toward Somaliland’s autonomy, and the State Department’s previous one country, two systems approach leads him to deny reality. Consider his statement that “our countries’ interests mostly coincide.” When former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan, Mogadishu sided with Beijing and condemned her trip. Even as the United States has poured billions of dollars into Mogadishu, the Somali leadership gives Beijing huge financial concessions. At the United Nations, Somalia votes with the United States only 20% of the time. That is equal to China, and a lesser percentage than its alignment with Russia (28%). Would Andre also say that U.S. and Russia’s interests mostly coincide?

Why the Ambassador’s Priorities Are Wrong

Andre tries to base his resistance to Somaliland in both traditional diplomatic practice and U.S. law. He is wrong on both counts. He says, for example, that he is “the personal representative of United States President Joseph Biden to Somalia President Hasan Sheikh Mohamud.” That technically may be true, but the job of the U.S. ambassador — especially in a country it considers a democracy — is to take a broader approach, and to meet with all political elements in a country. While Andre is right that the voices of Somali citizens inform the U.S. embassy’s views, he is wrong to subordinate the will of Congress to his own personal whims. Nor is it honest to suggest he hears Somali views when he treats Somaliland as a pariah without roaming the streets of Hargeisa, Berbera, Burau, or Boroma to actually listen to local views. 

He further states, “Before we undertake programs anywhere in Somalia…we first coordinate with the Federal Government of Somalia.” Here, he embraces an idea both the State Department and Congress have previously identified as poor diplomatic practice. Prior to the Arab Spring, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt used to vet all embassy programs through then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Congress concluded such actions undermined both the letter and spirit of U.S. law. It reinforced Mubarak’s dictatorship and eviscerated democratization efforts. 

Andre ends the explanation of his position by pointing to the 2012 Somali constitution and the 1961 Vienna Convention. This is disingenuous for three reasons. First, the provisional constitution sought popular elections, something Somaliland has undertaken eight times but Somalia still resists. Second, the U.S. does not allow the constitution of the People’s Republic of China to define America’s diplomatic interests, so why should it do so with Somalia? Third, it flies in the face of precedent, not only in Somalia, where U.S. policy previously embraced Somaliland’s separate status, but also with Taiwan, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan, all of which the State Department engages directly with dedicated institutes, offices, or consulates, regardless of the views of revanchists and autocrats in Beijing, Damascus, or Baghdad. In none of these cases does the United States confuse representation with recognition of independence. Rather, it sees engagement as responsible diplomacy and understands that democratic, local representation matters. 

Andre should remember: The State Department executes policy, but Congress crafts it. He should not treat the peoples of Somalia and Somaliland as fools by erasing precedents. Andre repeats the error of his predecessor and indulges the worst instincts of some Mogadishu-based politicians. Those instincts run against U.S. national security interests. 

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).



  1. Blossom

    January 19, 2023 at 3:06 pm

    The blocked Somaliland Partnership Act is not the same as our NDAA amendment. We should know. We formulate the language. We have over 20 years of legislative drafting experience combined:

    The [Federal Government] (singular) of Somalia and Somaliland is very different from the [Federal Government(s)] (plural) of Somalia and Somaliland. Also very different from the Federal Government of Somalia [,] and Somaliland.

    The State Department and DOD can read, and they concur. Fact: The NDAA amendment reads: Federal Government of Somalia and Somaliland. The amendment is focused on ‘One Somalia’: The Federal Government of Somalia and Somaliland and the FMS. It does not establish any US/Somaliland partnership. That is pure fantasy that has no legs to stand on.

  2. Mo Mo

    January 19, 2023 at 7:49 pm

    Thank you so much Mr Rubin for your succinct and well received article which actually exposes Ambassador’s poor judgement and his lack of knowledge of the difference between Somalia and somaliland and his unprofessional behaviour towards somaliland democracy.

  3. Ibrahim Hassan

    January 19, 2023 at 7:57 pm

    I think American Ambassador in Mogadishu, Larry Andre, will never able to dictate Somaliland with what Mogadisho wants to. Thousands of Somaliland sons and daughters sacrificed their lives in eight-year long war to liberate themselves from the genocidal regime of Siyad Barre and to withdrew from the devastating, disastrous thirty-year long union (1960-1990). Somaliland government and people will not compromise their blood worn-sovereignty to the way Mogadishu likes. Somaliland is not Somalia, Berbera is not in Somalia but in Somaliland whether Somaliland is recognized or not. Impossible to satisfy the two countries equally but each can be appeased separately for holding deep political animosity against each other. It is up to the ambassador how to tread in hostile waters without sticking to diplomacy norms.

  4. MoMo

    January 19, 2023 at 8:01 pm

    You have our total respect Mr Rubin. Ignore the above empty comment from defender of the failed state of Somalia- the dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.

  5. Mohamed Beergeel

    January 19, 2023 at 11:34 pm

    First and foremost Dr. Rubin thank you very much for highlighting the facts on the ground regarding the difference between Somalia and Somaliland.

    In my humble opinion, the recognition of Somaliland Republic by the international community led by the most powerful United States of America will be helpful to a peaceful democratization of Somalia as well as the region in general.

    The other alternative is unifying all the five Somali speaking communities territories (NFD, Somalia, Somaliland, Somali West and Djibouti) which the European imperialists divided our people without our WILL.

  6. Saeed Haji

    January 20, 2023 at 4:54 am

    Hey Mr Rubin

    Thank you very much for this beautiful article about Somaliland and Somalia.
    You have pointed out something very true and realities of the horn.

    We thank you for your support to the people of Somaliland.

  7. Xirsi Dhoore

    January 20, 2023 at 2:04 pm

    Lobbying to destroy unity of Somalis is not a wise idea. Say Somalia or Somaliland, they are all Somalis and your reference of Bosnians or Kosovars against Serbian nationalists in Belgrade can not be applied here.

  8. Parker

    January 20, 2023 at 4:18 pm

    This is interesting!

    We need to bring the attention of the speaker and the house to the matter of Mr. Larry in Somalia and Somaliland.

    Why do we have to side with the supporter of China, isn’t that against American interests?

    On top of that, an undemocratic nation that fails to govern by itself for thirty years why are we that most?

    American interest is first.

  9. Abdifataah Hussien

    January 21, 2023 at 12:14 am

    thank you, we are Somalilanders who ready all war between world and us. finally, we are somali that proud our nationalist.

  10. Gamal Mohamoud

    January 21, 2023 at 12:30 pm

    Well paid Secessionist lobbyist neocon lobbying to dismember an African Country. Mr. Ruben there has never been and there will never be an independent country called Somaliland. Keep cashing in with your nonsense analysis.

  11. Abdi Sh.

    January 22, 2023 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks a lot Mr.Rubin, No one can hide Somaliland Democracy of ONE MAN ONE VOTE in East Africa. Somalia is a failed state for the last 32 years in terms of PEACE AND GOVERNMENT. Somaliland has the right to withdrew from the failed Union with Republic of Somalia in 1960.Somaliland built a nation from scratch with Democracy without any help. The future of our children can not depend on the failed State of Somalia. No one can stop American interest of Democracy and human rights protection for PEACE AND PROSPEROUS.

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