Terrible Countries, Terrible People

The specific incident to which the State Department official is referring to as “a watershed” is the Battle of Mogadishu, where 18 American Rangers/Delta Force members were killed, and 73 wounded. The mission was a success by its own criteria: they captured the two senior officials of the Habr Gidr clan that they intended to capture, as well as several lesser officials. The estimated death toll of Somalis who were involved in the battle varies between 300 and 1,000; that’s a kill ratio of between 15 and 50 to 1. However, it was a popular failure because it unified the Habr Gidr clan behind Aidid, allowing him to portray Americans as bloodthirsty killers; it sapped American public support for interventionism; it provided the Republicans with a club for beating Clinton (not that they lacked for others…), making it difficult, if not impossible, for his administration to pursue a policy they may have believed was justified, if unpopular. More directly, it effectively ended nation-building efforts in Somalia, a country where such efforts are arguably most needed in the world.

My question is this: what effect would official recognition of the idea mentioned by the State Department official have on American foreign policy and interventionism? At first glance, it suggests that America has no place intervening anywhere that doesn’t issue an engraved invitation from a sizable population willing to sacrifice whatever’s necessary, to essentially hand their sovereignty over to America in exchange for whatever political system results. Certainly, the current situation in the Middle East seems to make more sense in light of this idea–that the Israelis and the Palestinians aren’t willing to sacrifice “victory” for peace; viewed that way the tepid American efforts to resolve the current conflict seem both appropriately non-commital and doomed to failure.

What arguments for interventionism remain if we accept that it’s not always bad leaders who make for national hell-holes, but a pliant population as well? Or does such recognition merely entail a different strategy, more centred on a hearts-and-minds campaign of conversion to democracry, rather than creating kindergarten democracies under the schoolmarmish eye of the U.N.?

I just finished reading Black Hawk Down and that very paragraph you quoted stuck out in my mind as well.

My $.02: we shouldn’t have been there at all. But, just because we had a problematic mission, didn’t mean we should have left the country empty handed. Farah Aidid was in a precarious position after having suffered such massive losses to the Rangers. It was a politically smart decision for Clinton to make, but the wrong thing to do. If the US wasn’t willing to take casualties, then we shouldn’t have sent troops into a battle.

I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face that the world didn’t drop the ball in regards to Rwanda. But ask the same question about Somalia and everybody’s got two opinions.

Rwanda was turning a blind eye; Somalia was going in blind. The question, for me at least, is not whether or not does the U.S. gets involved, but what it can realistically accomplish by doing so. It can’t erase centuries of conflict, but maybe we can trim the worst of it, if we’re careful and lucky. To expect more is foolish.

Israel and Palestine almost look cut and dry compared to those places. Still, it’s the same problem, given the events of 1983. Combine blindness with the unwillingness to bear casualities, and you have very little.

The fact that the American stomach for war casualties is extremely weak is another topic. The question I’m curious about is that the State Department official’s perception, if you accept it, indicates the need for a different strategy for intervention, not a need for isolationism.

America seems never to have grasped the idea behind hearts-and-minds campaigns the way others did, like the British in Malay. For example, in Somalia, the U.N. troops were in charge of large deliveries of food aid that were handed to warlords who withheld it to starve their enemies. What if, instead, the U.N. troops (meaning American soldiers) guarded the handout of family sized portions? Or took over urban policing in Mogadishu, including a court system and a prison? “Trimming the worst of it” is the attitude that led the U.S. to see an alliance of enemies as a solution; what about displacing the warlords entirely?

In other words, the interventionist answer to nations full of people who don’t want peace is to forcibly install the institutions that make for a civil society, and guard those institutions until they are viable on their own. The U.N. in Somalia tried to broker a power-sharing arrangement between warlords who were very popular among their segments of the population; that seems doomed to fail, in retrospect.

By comparison, in Afghanistan, the U.S. is putting its military might behind the Karzai regime–threaten Karzai, and you’ll be on the wrong end of an American rifle. If they keep this up, Karzai will survive long enough to be generally perceived as the legitimate leader of Afghanistan, and the power of the competing clan leaders will be trivialized, if not broken.

I differ. The weak knees of U.S. are at the very heart of your question, because they limit the kind of intervention that is politically available. And they also influence the opinion of the very places the U.S. intervenes in, with our well-deserved rep for taking off the second the body count rises.

The only way to ensure a successful intervention is to do what the U.S. did to Japan. Conquer it utterly and then rebuild it in its own image so it can never be a threat again. The U.S. did not do this out of a deep concern for the Japanese people, at least at first - it was simply the only option available, so its great and horrible cost was accepted.

But here’s the rub. A country like Somalia posesses no threat to the American mainland. The U.S. loses very little by letting internal conflict run its course. Still, there were worries that the conflict might spread, and humanitarian issues, so it was decided to meddle a bit, until the cost got too high. And since there was always the option of backing out, the cutoff point was low.

Things have changed a little, but not very much, since 9/11. The State Department can now dimly glimpse two things: 1) those little countries we brushed off over the years are breeding grounds for terrorists that ARE a threat to the American mainland, and 2) the rep the U.S. has made for itself over the years is a horrible weight that they’ll be lugging along for decades to come while fighting the progeny of 1).

These lessons are only half-learned. Case in point, Afghanistan. I question your assertion the U.S. will back Karzai if it got nasty. He’s little more than mayor of Kabul and a good push would deseat him. In which case, it might take lots of American soldiers to replace him. Why not deal with the new leader? I can see Bush forced into such a decision, because he has failed to commit himself fully to Karzai by refusing to commit troops to peacekeeping, leaving much of the country lawless or in the hands of grumbling warlords. That’s ‘power-broking’. Britain is no better on the commitment issue, and Turkey is about to follow the same path. I wouldn’t want to be Karzai or whatever sorry fellow heads the new Afghan government, because they have very little to stand on, thanks to lackluster support by their redeemers. It’s a better job of nation-cleaning than the U.S. has done in years, but it’s far from ideal.