Reversal of Fortune

Vladimir Putin's social contract has been premised on an authoritarian state delivering rising incomes and resurgent power. But the economic crisis is unraveling all that. And what comes next in Russia might be even worse.

For the Western world, 1929 marked the start of the Great Depression. For the Soviet Union, it was a year that Joseph Stalin called the "Great Break" -- the ending of a short spell of semiprivate economic policy and the beginning of the deadly period of forced collectivization and industrialization. Often mistranslated as the "Great Leap Forward," "Great Break" is truer to Stalin's intentions and much more befitting their tragic consequences. The events he set in motion 80 years ago broke millions of lives and changed human values and instincts in Russia. It was, arguably, the most consequential year in Russia's 20th-century history. Now, 80 years later, and for much different reasons, 2009 could shape up to be a year of similarly far-reaching consequences for Russia's 21st century.

Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin. But just as historians view 1929 as the end of the revolutionary period of Soviet history, scholars will (and already do) define Putin's rule as a restoration that followed a revolution. Restoration -- of lost geopolitical influence, of Soviet symbols, of fear, of even Stalin's reputation -- has been the main narrative of the past decade. But as history shows, periods of restoration do not restore the old order; they create new threats. This is what Russia is today -- a new, much more nationalistic and aggressive country that bears as much (or as little) resemblance to the Soviet Union as it does to the free and colorful, though poor and chaotic, Russia of the 1990s.

The idea of a resurgent Russia has been at the heart of Putin's social contract, generating alarm abroad but admiration at home. Russians came to see themselves as winning again, first in international song contests and prestigious soccer matches, and then in a war last summer with their tiny Caucasian neighbor, Georgia. That conflict was presented and perceived as a victory against the United States, which has in recent years backed Georgia and supplied it with arms. It was the epitome of Russia's resurgence, its return at last to being a great power that could stand its ground and that was willing and able to confront the West militarily.

Russia's ambitions were backed by rising oil prices and swelling coffers. Money kept flowing in no matter what the Kremlin said or did. Local businesses and international corporations were scared into total obedience. Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's protégé and successor as president, even began lecturing the world on how to reorganize the global financial system. He dreamed Russia would become a new financial capital, and the ruble a new reserve currency. At last, Russia was feared by the West, which in Putin's book is equivalent to respect.

The financial crisis that erupted on Wall Street in 2008 initially heightened Russia's sense of resurgence. Putin boasted about the success of the past few years and gloated about U.S. distress in the same hawkish tones that Stalin used in 1929 to tout the transformation of the Soviet Union into an industrial superpower. "We did not have a crisis of liquidity; we did not have a mortgage crisis. We escaped it. Russia is a safe haven," Putin said. Then the economic crisis engulfed Russia, too.

In 1929, the Soviet Union was mostly isolated from the global shocks of the Great Depression. That is not true today. The current economic crisis has hit Russia hard, exposing its institutional weaknesses and the fragility of its success. The drop in the price of oil and the seizing up of capital markets are choking Russia's economy, which has relied on petrodollars and cheap credit. Economies have been hit all over the world, but nowhere, it seems, has the reversal been as dramatic as in Russia.

Confidence in the rule of a wealthy, heavy-handed Russian state has been shaken, and it is now a real possibility that the global economic crisis, as it persists and even intensifies, could cause Putin’s social contract to unravel. What is not clear, however, is what would take its place -- and whether it would be any improvement. The nationalist passions and paranoia that Putin has stirred up have poisoned Russian society in lasting ways. Now, 2009 could be a new "Great Break" for Russia, but the result might just be a country in upheaval -- broken.

Putin's social contract has been based on co-opting Russia's elites, bribing the population, and repressing the disobedient. A mixture of nationalistic rhetoric, rising incomes, and pride in Russia's resurgence won public support. Until now, money has been Putin's most powerful weapon. Rising incomes and a strong ruble (due to high commodity prices) have enabled Russians to enjoy imported food, holidays abroad, and foreign cars and technology. But even if the lives of ordinary people have not improved dramatically (49 percent say they have enough money for basic needs but struggle to buy much else), Russians at least felt that they had stopped sliding backward. Now things are looking bleak again.

The immediate response from Moscow has not been greater humility, but deepened bitterness and aggression. Predictably, Russia blamed the United States for everything, from the economic crisis itself to instigating the recent gas conflict with Ukraine. The anti-American hysteria in Russian state media is deafening. The hubristic tone of Russia's leaders is buoyed in part because the crisis is not yet starkly visible in Moscow. Restaurants may not be full, but they are still busy, and supermarkets are heaving with people.

In Russian homes and on the streets, however, the talk is of crisis. Stories of layoffs and reduced salaries, canceled projects, and frozen funding have replaced the chitchat about holidays abroad and new foreign cars. Slowly but surely, the truth is starting to set in: After eight years of economic boom, the growth of Russia's economy is now slowing.

Real incomes are dropping at the same time utility bills are going up. Inflation is forecast at 13 percent, and the ruble has lost more than 30 percent of its value since last summer. Given that half of all goods Russians buy are imported, the impact on living standards will be dramatic. The long-term risk is that the crisis will undermine private initiative and empower inefficient monopolies and opaque state corporations. The new economic model that could emerge would reflect the worst mixture of the private sector and public sphere: nationalization of debts and privatization of profits. This, on top of Russia's other chronic problems (which include dysfunctional public services, thriving corruption, and an aging, shrinking workforce), does not bode well for the country.

The sedation of Russian state television is wearing out for an increasingly disenchanted public. Trust in its coverage of the economic situation has declined dramatically as the pain of the crisis deepens. Only 28 percent of Russians now think the media are objective. And as financial resources become scarcer, it is likely that an increasingly desperate Kremlin will resort to greater violence and repression to maintain its splintering social contract.

This was vividly demonstrated in December during riots in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Pacific Far East. Street clashes with a broadly apolitical crowd -- most unusual in the generally complacent Putin era -- were sparked by a Kremlin decision to raise customs duties for used cars. The idea was to prop up Russia's struggling auto manufacturers. But because the importing and servicing of cheap, secondhand Japanese cars has long been a mainstay of Vladivostok's economy, Moscow's decision ended up depriving hundreds of thousands of people in the Far East of their livelihoods. When thousands of motorists blocked the main roads, the Kremlin could not rely on the local police force and had to airlift special riot police in from the Moscow region, 10 time zones west. The brutality with which these units dispersed the demonstrators shocked even the local police.

When protesters realized that state television failed to report the clashes, their rage, initially aimed against a particular economic measure, turned against the entire political system. Several Russian commentators drew parallels with the massacre of workers in Novocherkassk in 1962, an episode of Soviet history kept secret for many years. When the Soviet government raised food prices while cutting workers' salaries, people took to the streets. The Soviet government brought in an army unit from the Caucasus and opened fire on the protesters.

Whether the current Kremlin is prepared to open fire on its own people is unclear. Soviet hard-liners held their fire when thousands of Russians defeated the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. But back then, the KGB and its communist patrons were disoriented and weak. Putin and his regime, on the other hand, are stronger and, most importantly, have more to lose.

What's even less clear is whether Russia's police or military would obey the orders to shoot if they were given. The Vladivostok protests and the government's violent response sparked an online debate in the chat room of Russia's Interior Ministry. One post read: "Dear colleagues, Russia is at a crucial junction. An economic catastrophe is coming. People's patience is coming to an end. Are we going to be the attack dogs of this regime?"

Another member replied: "I will never shoot at my own people."

The ministry hurriedly closed down the forum, citing "technical problems."

So far, neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg has seen anything on the scale of violence that recently erupted in neighboring Latvia or Lithuania, as well as Vladivostok. And they may not: The willingness to protest in Russia's two largest cities has been fairly muted. Seven decades of communism instilled in Russians a capacity to adjust to hardship and an unwillingness to make much fuss about it. Having lived through two massive currency devaluations in the 1990s that wiped out their savings, people have learned not to trust their government. The feeling is mutual: The servile Russian parliament has widened the definition of treason and scrapped jury trials for such crimes as "organizing mass riots." And because the potential for trouble is more severe in cities that rely entirely on just one industry or factory -- of which Russia has a few hundred -- the Kremlin is making sure that people do not get sacked, even if their salaries are delayed or cut.

The Kremlin is acutely aware that civil unrest in Russia could trigger the country's disintegration. The most alarming hot spots that could erupt into full-scale civil conflict are Russia's ethnic Muslim republics in the south, particularly Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. After two bloody wars in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, a local strongman whom the Kremlin installed as president, has been more or less keeping a lid on things in recent years. A steady flow of money and complete carte blanche for Kadyrov to run his republic as he sees fit have removed much of the incentive for fighting. But if the money were to run out, this could change.

Even more than street protests, discontent among the Russian elite could destabilize Putin's regime. Moscow is ripe with speculation about a possible rift between Putin and Medvedev. Parts of Russia's elite seem well aware of the risks facing the country and fear the instability that could result from the concentration of power in Putin's hands. Some of his actions, including the energy war with Ukraine, are no longer in the interests of much of the elite, since cutting off gas to Europe also means cutting off Russian profits.

But the chances of a liberal renaissance as a result of Putin's social contract unraveling are highly unlikely. There is nothing more misleading than to portray Russia as a liberal-minded society suppressed by a nasty bunch of former kgb agents. The uncomfortable truth is, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed boss of the Yukos oil company destroyed by the Kremlin, put it: Putin "is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population." And unlike late Soviet leaders who inspired the contempt of the population, Putin even now remains authentically popular.

Putin's most damaging and possibly longest-lasting legacy is that he has played to Russia's worst instincts. Rather than develop a sense of pride in Russia's victory over the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has fostered feelings of past humiliation and defeat, and subsequently a longing for retribution. Many foreign responses haven't helped in this regard: American hawks who argue triumphantly that their old Cold War adversary is irrelevant have been of as much assistance to Putin as some of Europe’s appeasers.

At the same time, Putin has stamped out any nagging sense of unease and shame over Russia's bloody past, including Stalin's painful "Great Break." Indeed, these days Stalin is described in Russian textbooks as a successful manager who led the country's industrial transformation. Using state television, Putin has nurtured not only nationalism, but a new wave of anti-Americanism. In the 1990s, these feelings were mainly prevalent in the older generation of die-hard communists. Today, they are firmly grounded in a generation of Internet-savvy 16-year-olds.

When Putin came to power a decade ago, he stirred dormant nostalgia for the lost Soviet empire. "It is an illness," warned former liberal Premier Yegor Gaidar. "Russia is going through its dangerous stage." This danger is made all the more real by today's crises: an imploding economy, expanding economic hardship, and an increasingly desperate Russian state that must rely on repression and nationalism. Whether Russia recovers from the illness or succumbs to it may be as crucial to the world's security as it was in the year of the Great Break.


The Most Dangerous Place in the World

Somalia is a state governed only by anarchy. A graveyard of foreign-policy failures, it has known just six months of peace in the past two decades. Now, as the country's endless chaos threatens to engulf an entire region, the world again simply watches it burn.

When you land at Mogadishu's international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven't fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.

Beyond the airport is one of the world's most stunning monuments to conflict: block after block, mile after mile, of scorched, gutted-out buildings. Mogadishu's Italianate architecture, once a gem along the Indian Ocean, has been reduced to a pile of machine-gun-chewed bricks. Somalia has been ripped apart by violence since the central government imploded in 1991. Eighteen years and 14 failed attempts at a government later, the killing goes on and on and on -- suicide bombs, white phosphorus bombs, beheadings, medieval-style stonings, teenage troops high on the local drug called khat blasting away at each other and anything in between. Even U.S. cruise missiles occasionally slam down from the sky. It's the same violent free-for-all on the seas. Somalia's pirates are threatening to choke off one of the most strategic waterways in the world, the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships pass through every year. These heavily armed buccaneers hijacked more than 40 vessels in 2008, netting as much as $100 million in ransom. It's the greatest piracy epidemic of modern times.

In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I've come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I've felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I've spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today's Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world.

The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets. There is no Green Zone here, by the way -- no fortified place of last resort to run to if, God forbid, you get hurt or in trouble. In Somalia, you’re on your own. The local hospitals barely have enough gauze to treat all the wounds.

The mayhem is now spilling across Somalia's borders, stirring up tensions and violence in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, not to mention Somalia's pirate-infested seas. The export of trouble may just be beginning. Islamist insurgents with al Qaeda connections are sweeping across the country, turning Somalia into an Afghanistan-like magnet for militant Islam and drawing in hard-core fighters from around the world. These men will eventually go home (if they survive) and spread the killer ethos. Somalia's transitional government, a U.N.-santioned creation that was deathly ill from the moment it was born four years ago, is about to flatline, perhaps spawning yet another doomed international rescue mission. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the old war horse of a president backed by the United States, finally resigned in December after a long, bitter dispute with the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. Ostensibly, their conflict was about a peace deal with the Islamists and a few cabinet posts. In truth, it may be purely academic. By early this year, the government's zone of control was down to a couple of city blocks. The country is nearly as big as Texas.

Just when things seem as though they can't get any worse in Somalia, they do. Beyond the political crisis, all the elements for a full-blown famine -- war, displacement, drought, skyrocketing food prices, and an exodus of aid workers -- are lining up again, just as they did in the early 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death. Last May, I stood in the doorway of a hut in the bone-dry central part of the country watching a sick little boy curl up next to his dying mother. Her clothes were damp. Her breaths were shallow. She hadn't eaten for days. "She will most likely die," an elder told me and walked away.

It's crunch time for Somalia, but the world is like me, standing in the doorway, looking in at two decades of unbridled anarchy, unsure what to do. Past interventions have been so cursed that no one wants to get burned again. The United States has been among the worst of the meddlers: U.S. forces fought predacious warlords at the wrong time, backed some of the same predacious warlords at the wrong time, and consistently failed to appreciate the twin pulls of clan and religion. As a result, Somalia has become a graveyard of foreign-policy blunders that have radicalized the population, deepened insecurity, and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.

Somalia is a political paradox -- unified on the surface, poisonously divided beneath. It is one of the world's most homogeneous nation-states, with nearly all of its estimated 9 to 10 million people sharing the same language (Somali), the same religion (Sunni Islam), the same culture, and the same ethnicity. But in Somalia, it's all about clan. Somalis divide themselves into a dizzying number of clans, subclans, sub-subclans, and so on, with shifting allegiances and knotty backstories that have bedeviled outsiders for years.

At the end of the 19th century, the Italians and the British divvied up most of Somalia, but their efforts to impose Western laws never really worked. Disputes tended to be resolved by clan elders. Deterrence was key: "Kill me and you will suffer the wrath of my entire clan." The places where the local ways were disturbed the least, such as British-ruled Somaliland, seem to have done better in the long run than those where the Italian colonial administration supplanted the role of clan elders, as in Mogadishu.

Somalia won independence in 1960, but it quickly became a Cold War pawn, prized for its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, where Africa and Asia nearly touch. First it was the Soviets who pumped in weapons, then the United States. A poor, mostly illiterate, mainly nomadic country became a towering ammunition dump primed to explode. The central government was hardly able to hold the place together. Even in the 1980s, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, the capricious dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991, was derisively referred to as "the mayor of Mogadishu" because so much of the country had already spun out of his control.

When clan warlords finally ousted him in 1991, it wasn't much of a surprise what happened next. The warlords unleashed all that military-grade weaponry on each other, and every port, airstrip, fishing pier, telephone pole -- anything that could turn a profit -- was fought over. People were killed for a few pennies. Women were raped with impunity. The chaos gave rise to a new class of parasitic war profiteers -- gunrunners, drug smugglers, importers of expired (and often sickening) baby formula -- people with a vested interest in the chaos continuing. Somalia became the modern world's closest approximation of Hobbes's state of nature, where life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. To call it even a failed state was generous. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a failed state. So is Zimbabwe. But those places at least have national armies and national bureaucracies, however corrupt. Since 1991, Somalia has not been a state so much as a lawless, ungoverned space on the map between its neighbors and the sea.

In 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush tried to help, sending in thousands of Marines to protect shipments of food. It was the beginning of the post-Cold War "new world order," when many believed that the United States, without a rival superpower, could steer world events in a new and morally righteous way. Somalia proved to be a very bad start. President Bush and his advisors misread the clan landscape and didn’t understand how fiercely loyal Somalis could be to their clan leaders. Somali society often divides and subdivides when faced with internal disputes, but it quickly bands together when confronted by an external enemy. The United States learned this the hard way when its forces tried to apprehend the warlord of the day, Mohammed Farah Aidid. The result was the infamous "Black Hawk Down" episode in October 1993. Thousands of Somali militiamen poured into the streets, carrying rocket-propelled grenades and wearing flip-flops. They shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 U.S. soldiers and dragging the corpses triumphantly through the streets. This would be Strike One for the United States in Somalia.

Humiliated, the Americans pulled out and Somalia was left to its own dystopian devices. For the next decade, the Western world mostly stayed away. But Arab organizations, many from Saudi Arabia and followers of the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, quietly stepped in. They built mosques, Koranic schools, and social service organizations, encouraging an Islamic revival. By the early 2000s, Mogadishu's clan elders set up a loose network of neighborhood-based courts to deliver a modicum of order in a city desperate for it. They rounded up thieves and killers, put them in iron cages, and held trials. Islamic law, or sharia, was the one set of principles that different clans could agree on; the Somali elders called their network the Islamic Courts Union.

Mogadishu’s business community spotted an opportunity. In Mogadishu, there are warlords and moneylords. While the warlords were ripping the country apart, the moneylords, Somalia's big-business owners, were holding the place together, delivering many of the same services -- for a tidy profit, of course -- that a government usually provides, such as healthcare, schools, power plants, and even privatized mail. The moneylords went as far as helping to regulate Somalia's monetary policy, and the Somali shilling was more stable in the 1990s -- without a functioning central bank -- than in the 1980s when there was a government. But with their profits came very high risks, such as chronic insecurity and extortion. The Islamists were a solution. They provided security without taxes, administration without a government. The moneylords began buying them guns.

By 2005, the CIA saw what was happening, and again misread the cues. This ended up being Strike Two.

In a post-September 11 world, Somalia had become a major terrorism worry. The fear was that Somalia could blossom into a jihad factory like Afghanistan, where al Qaeda in the 1990s plotted its global war on the West. It didn’t seem to matter that at this point there was scant evidence to justify this fear. Some Western military analysts told policymakers that Somalia was too chaotic for even al Qaeda, because it was impossible for anyone -- including terrorists -- to know whom to trust. Nonetheless, the administration of George W. Bush devised a strategy to stamp out the Islamists on the cheap. CIA agents deputized the warlords, the same thugs who had been preying upon Somalia's population for years, to fight the Islamists. According to one Somali warlord I spoke with in March 2008, an American agent named James and another one named David showed up in Mogadishu with briefcases stuffed with cash. Use this to buy guns, the agents said. Drop us an e-mail if you have any questions. The warlord showed me the address: no_email_today@yahoo.com.

The plan backfired. Somalis like to talk; the country, ironically, has some of the best and cheapest cellular phone service in Africa. Word quickly spread that the same warlords no one liked anymore were now doing the Americans' bidding, which just made the Islamists even more popular. By June 2006, the Islamists had run the last warlords out of Mogadishu. Then something unbelievable happened: The Islamists seemed to tame the place.

I saw it with my own eyes. I flew into Mogadishu in September 2006 and saw work crews picking up trash and kids swimming at the beach. For the first time in years, no gunshots rang out at night. Under the banner of Islam, the Islamists had united rival clans and disarmed much of the populace, with clan support of course. They even cracked down on piracy by using their clan connections to dissuade coastal towns from supporting the pirates. When that didn't work, the Islamists stormed hijacked ships. According to the International Maritime Bureau in London, there were 10 pirate attacks off Somalia's coast in 2006, which is tied for the lowest number of attacks this decade.

The Islamists' brief reign of peace was to be the only six months of calm Somalia has tasted since 1991. But it was one thing to rally together to overthrow the warlords and another to decide what to do next. A rift quickly opened between the moderate Islamists and the extremists, who were bent on waging jihad. One of the most radical factions has been the Shabab, a multiclan military wing with a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The Shabab drove around Mogadishu in big, black pickup trucks and beat women whose ankles were showing. Even the other Islamist gunmen were scared of them. By December 2006, some of the population began to chafe against the Shabab for taking away their beloved khat, the mildly stimulating leaf that Somalis chew like bubble gum. Shabab leaders were widely rumored to be working with foreign jihadists, including wanted al Qaeda terrorists, and the U.S. State Department later designated the Shabab a terrorist organization. American officials have said that the Shabab are sheltering men who masterminded the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Somalia may indeed have sheltered a few unsavory characters, but the country was far from the terrorist hotbed many worry it has now become. In 2006, there was a narrow window of opportunity to peel off the moderate Islamists from the likes of the Shabab, and some U.S. officials, such as Democratic Rep. Donald M. Payne, the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, were trying to do exactly that. Payne and others met with the moderate Islamists and encouraged them to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the transitional government.

But the Bush administration again reached for the gunpowder. The United States would not do much of the fighting itself, since sending large numbers of ground troops into Somalia with Iraq and Afghanistan raging would have been deemed insane. Instead, the United States anointed a proxy: the Ethiopian Army. This move would be Strike Three.


Ethiopia is one of the United States' best friends in Africa, its government having carefully cultivated an image as a Christian bulwark in a region seething with Islamist extremism. The Ethiopian leadership savvily told the Bush administration what it wanted to hear: The Islamists were terrorists and, unchecked, they would threaten the entire region and maybe even attack American safari-goers in Kenya next door.

Of course, the Ethiopians had their own agenda. Ethiopia is a country with a mostly Christian leadership but a population that is nearly half Muslim. It seems only a matter of time before there is an Islamic awakening in Ethiopia. On top of that, the Ethiopian government is fighting several rebel groups, including a powerful one that is ethnically Somali. The government feared that an Islamist Somalia could become a rebel beachhead next door. The Ethiopians were also scared that Somalia's Islamists would team up with Eritrea, Ethiopia's archenemy, which is exactly what ended up happening.

Not everyone in Washington swallowed the Ethiopian line. The country has a horrendous human rights record, and the Ethiopian military (which receives aid for human rights training from the United States) is widely accused of brutalizing its own people. But in December 2006, the Bush administration shared prized intelligence with the Ethiopians and gave them the green light to invade Somalia. Thousands of Ethiopian troops rolled across the border (many had secretly been in the country for months), and they routed the Islamist troops within a week. There were even some U.S. Special Forces with the Ethiopian units. The United States also launched several airstrikes in an attempt to take out Islamist leaders, and it continued with intermittent cruise missiles targeting suspected terrorists. Most have failed, killing civilians and adding to the boiling anti-American sentiment.

The Islamists went underground, and the transitional government arrived in Mogadishu. There was some cheering, a lot of jeering, and the insurgency revved up within days. The transitional government was widely reviled as a coterie of ex-warlords, which it mostly was. It was the 14th attempt since 1991 to stand up a central government. None of the previous attempts had worked. True, some detractors have simply been war profiteers hell-bent on derailing any government. But a lot of blame falls on what this transitional government has done -- or not done. From the start, leaders seemed much more interested in who got what post than living up to the corresponding job descriptions. The government quickly lost the support of key clans in Mogadishu by its harsh (and unsuccessful) tactics in trying to wipe out the insurgents, and by its reliance on Ethiopian troops. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought several wars against each other over the contested Ogaden region that Ethiopia now claims. That region is mostly ethnically Somali, so teaming up with Ethiopia was seen as tantamount to treason.

The Islamists tapped into this sentiment, positioning themselves as the true Somali nationalists, and gaining widespread support again. The results were intense street battles between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian troops in which thousands of civilians have been killed. Ethiopian forces have indiscriminately shelled entire neighborhoods (which precipitated a European Union investigation into war crimes), and have even used white phosphorous bombs that literally melt people, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of people have emptied out of Mogadishu and settled in camps that have become breeding grounds for disease and resentment. Death comes more frequently and randomly than ever before. I met one man in Mogadishu who was chatting with his wife on her cellphone when she was cut in half by a stray mortar shell. Another man I spoke to went out for a walk, got shot in the leg during a crossfire, and had to spend seven days eating grass before the fighting ended and he could crawl away.

It’s incredibly dangerous for us journalists, too. Few foreign journalists travel to Somalia anymore. Kidnapping is the threat du jour. Friends of mine who work for the United Nations in Kenya told me I had about a 100 percent chance of being stuffed into the back of a Toyota or shot (or both) if I didn't hire a private militia. Nowadays, as soon as I land, I take 10 gunmen under my employ.

By late January, the only territory the transitional government controlled was a shrinking federal enclave in Mogadishu guarded by a small contingent of African Union peacekeepers. As soon as the Ethiopians pulled out of the capital, vicious fighting broke out between the various Islamist factions scrambling to fill the power gap. It took only days for the Islamists to recapture the third-largest town, Baidoa, from the government and install sharia law. The Shabab are not wildly popular, but they are formidable; for the time being they have a motivated, disciplined militia with hundreds of hard-core fighters and probably thousands of gunmen allied with them. The violence has shown no signs of halting, even with the election of a new, moderate Islamist president -- one who had, ironically, been a leader of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006.

If the Shabab do seize control of the country, they might not stop there. They could send their battle-hardened fighters in battered four-wheel-drive pickup trucks into Ethiopia, Kenya, and maybe even Djibouti to try to snatch back the Somali-speaking parts of those countries. This scenario has long been part of an ethereal pan-Somali dream. Pursuit of that goal would internationalize the conflict and surely drag in neighboring countries and their allies.

The Shabab could also wage an asymmetric war, unleashing terrorists on Somalia's secular neighbors and their secular backers -- most prominently, the United States. This would upend an already combustible dynamic in the Horn of Africa, catalyzing other conflicts. For instance, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a nasty border war in the late 1990s, which killed as many as 100,000 people, and both countries are still heavily militarized along the border. If the Shabab, which boasts Eritrean support, took over Somalia, we might indeed see round two of Ethiopia versus Eritrea. The worst-case scenario could mean millions of people displaced across the entire region, crippled food production, and violence-induced breaches in the aid pipeline. In short, a famine in one of the most perennially needy parts of the world -- again.

The hardest challenge of all might be simply preventing the worst-case scenario. Among the best suggestions I've heard is to play to Somalia's strengths as a fluid, decentralized society with local mechanisms to resolve conflicts. The foundation of order would be clan-based governments in villages, towns, and neighborhoods. These tiny fiefdoms could stack together to form district and regional governments. The last step would be uniting the regional governments in a loose national federation that coordinated, say, currency issues or antipiracy efforts, but did not sideline local leaders.

Western powers should do whatever they can to bring moderate Islamists into the transitional government while the transitional government still exists. Whether people like it or not, many Somalis see Islamic law as the answer. Maybe they're not fond of the harsh form imposed by the Shabab, who have, on at least one occasion, stoned to death a teenage girl who had been raped (an Islamic court found her guilty of adultery). Still, there is an appetite for a certain degree of Islamic governance. That desire should not be confused with support for terrorism.

A more radical idea is to have the United Nations take over the government and administer Somalia with an East Timor-style mandate. Because Somalia has already been an independent country, this option might be too much for Somalis to stomach. To make it work, the United Nations would need to delegate authority to clan leaders who have measurable clout on the ground. Either way, the diplomats should be working with the moneylords more and the warlords less.

But the problem with Somalia is that after 18 years of chaos, with so many people killed, with so many gun-toting men rising up and then getting cut down, it is exceedingly difficult to identify who the country's real leaders are, if they exist at all. It's not just Mogadishu's wasteland of blown-up buildings that must be reconstructed; it's the entire national psyche. The whole country is suffering from an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Somalis will have to move beyond the narrow interests of clans, where they have withdrawn for protection, and embrace the idea of a Somali nation.

If that happens, the work will just be beginning. Nearly an entire generation of Somalis has absolutely no idea what a government is or how it functions. I've seen this glassy-eyed generation all across the country, lounging on bullet-pocked street corners and spaced out in the back of pickup trucks, Kalashnikovs in their hands and nowhere to go. To them, law and order are thoroughly abstract concepts. To them, the only law in the land is the business end of a machine gun.