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The Swing toward the Non-interventionist Pole

Clinton’s accession to power furthered America’s pendulum cycle toward the non-interventionist pole. Whether wearied of Cold War exertions or longing for home priorities, the electorate hungered for international restraint by its leader. Nor was the new White House resident interested in shaping public opinion through speeches and policy for any overseas actions. Bill Clinton was sensitive to the mood of the body politic. When he spoke to the UN on September 27, 1993, he cast his remarks for two different audiences at the same time. To his domestic audience, the commander-in-chief assured Americans that the country was not about to wade into the Bosnian imbroglio or other intractable hostilities in the tow of the UN. He warned “if the American people are to say ‘yes’ to UN peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say ‘no’ to too many commitments.” For international listeners, the president reconfirmed America’s overseas commitments. He stressed that the “United States plans to remain engaged and to lead.”8 A few days after his nuanced UN speech, Clinton faced an explosive foreign crisis that rocked his young presidency and entrenched more limits on American intervention for much of his first term.

Five thousand miles away and in a world apart from the plush UN General Assembly chamber in New York City, US military personnel fought back heroically and died in the hot, dusty streets of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993. In pursuit of clan warriors, US SOF swooped down in their MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters into the Somali capital. After the troops captured their prey, they came under fierce gunfire from every corner, window, or alley, as the small band of US Rangers and Delta Force operators fought their way to safety. Fifteen hours later, the Battle of Mogadishu subsided after claiming 18 American lives and possibly 500 Somali deaths. In raw numbers, the urban battle was a decisive US victory. The vastly outnumbered and surrounded SOF acquitted themselves with stoic bravery. They took back the two clan lords for which they had been sent, plus scores of followers. The relief column deployed to rescue the tiny contingent, in fact, succeeded. Together they made good their escape under blistering fire to the protection of the Mogadishu airport. A battlefield victory, nevertheless, is not always a political triumph. Mogadishu belonged in the category of an international debacle.

How did this blow befall the United States? The story began in the twilight of George H.W. Bush’s presidency with his food-relief mission conducted under the legitimizing auspices of the UN, as noted in the preceding chapter. The Pentagon-run Operation Restore Hope set out to rescue the starving Somalian population beset by anarchy after the overthrow of the country’s military dictator. This humanitarian goal was largely fulfilled within weeks of the first US troops setting foot in the country on the Horn of Africa in early December 1992. The American soldiers and Marines completed their mission without sparking fire-fights with rabble-rousing militias under various warlords and clan chiefs by eschewing confrontations with them. Instead, they concentrated on food distribution while not attempting to disarm or arrest the rifle-toting irregulars. On the eve of Bill Clinton’s swearing-in ceremony, Bush’s Department of Defense withdrew several hundred Marines as a start to the eventual turnover of food distribution to the UN forces. Other US military forces pulled out during the next months.

The formal transfer of duties from the United States to the UN took place in May 1993, under the Clinton administration’s guidance. The new international force was named United Nations Operation Somalia. All but some 5000 American troops left the African country at that time; those remaining became part of the 30,000 member UNOSCOM contingent. Secretary of State Christopher cabled his satisfaction: “We have phased out the American-led mission in Somalia, and taken the lead in passing responsibility to the United Nations peacekeeping forces.”9

Paradoxically, Washington’s step back from the lead role coincided with a step up in UN operations, which directly involved the remaining US military forces in street battles. The Clinton administration deepened its intervention without due preparation, almost as if sleep-walking into the potential pitfalls that awaited it. Later, the Pentagon acknowledged its “mission creep” left it ill-prepared for the Somali backlash. In brief, the United States, along with the UN peacekeepers, moved from handing out food to imposing order on a chaotic land of feuding clans and militias. Stability was just the first step in what Washington officials saw as a project of “nation building” in Somalia. Rather than taking into account the scarcity of democratic traditions or even a homogenous population, they plunged ahead. In the course of Clinton’s first summer in the White House, his administration changed course. Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, cabled his enthusiasm about Somalia to his diplomatic corps: “[F]or the first time there will be a sturdy American role to help the United Nations rebuild a viable nation state.”10

Priority one for UN and US force was the eradication of the warlords and their armed teenagers. Abundant small arms in the hands of young, unemployed Somali men confounded Western hopes for the clan-torn state. These “technicals” cruised the Mogadishu streets in pick-up trucks brimming with weaponry. In itself, the UN’s anti-militia operations shattered two traditions. First, the blue-helmeted peacekeepers took up offensive operations rather than their routine passive peace-support patrols. Second, because the UN was in the lead, this configuration resulted in US fighting forces being, at least nominally, subordinate to UN commanders. What created the most unease back in the United States were reports of US troops engaged in hostile actions with Somali irregulars.

Congressional committees held hearings about the mounting US combat operations authorized by the UN. Reports caused unease about American Rangers and Delta Force commandos spearheading raids to capture or kill Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the chief of the Habr Gidr clan as a means to bring peace to Somalia. They signified the militarization of the UN operations. Madeleine Albright, America’s ambassador to the UN, testified to Congress that US military participation in UN operations was necessary for “rebuilding Somali society and promoting democracy in that strife-torn nation.” She went on to declare in a loaded phrase that “assertive multilateralism” served American international interest.11 This two-word phrase became a target for critics of humanitarian deployments that did not contribute to tangible US policy goals. Amid this escalating political debate in Washington, the “black hawk down” incident took place in Somalia.

Tensions boiled over in Mogadishu after 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in June and four US soldiers from a roadside bomb two months later. In retaliation, the US military hatched an operation to capture two Aidid confidantes meeting in the Olympic Hotel downtown in the seaside capital on the first Sunday of October.12 The Task Force Ranger helicopters whooshed down on the hotel site, enabling the on-board elite forces to scoop up their two quarries. Soon, the commando raid ran into trouble when first one and then a second Black Hawk helicopter were shot down by militants in the streets. The embattled troops and their prisoners came under withering fire from hundreds of destitute Somalis, who shot, retrieved fallen arms, or scouted on the retreating column. After making good their escape, with the help of a relief column, the military and White House came in for a rude awakening.

The immediate repercussions hit squarely at all parties in the fight. For the Somalis, their killing American servicemen and dragging their bodies through humid streets led the US and UN personnel to withdraw from the country. Hunger and privation again wantonly stalked the Horn of Africa nation. The fighting also demoralized the decimated ranks of Aidid’s followers. Many left the city fearing a searing US reprisal for the desecration of the dead, which violated Islamic beliefs.13 The Clinton administration sustained a public relations blow from a stunned American public, who thought that the United States was only in Somali on a goodwill mission to feed and succor huddled masses. American television viewers recoiled at the graphic images of the bodies of their troops pulled behind exultant Somalis. Bill Clinton seemed over his head in international affairs and out of touch with the doings of his own administration in a far-off land. The Defense Department was blamed for “mission creep” by permitting the military operation to exceed its means.

The deepest impact occurred in how the United States conducted its future foreign policy. The Somali misadventure reverberated in the halls of power for some time. It profoundly influenced American policy toward other trouble spots such as Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia. It bred hesitancy in the president and his innermost circle. No-more-Somalias became a watchword deeply internalized if not openly uttered. It accentuated the international pendulum swing toward domestic affairs, away from foreign entanglements with potential military casualties and political defeats. Clinton was already homing in on the domestic economy and the midterm Congressional elections a year away. At the time of the Black Hawk Down action, Clinton was in California pitching his version of health care reform. When he learned of the calamity, he erupted in anger at his own officials for not informing him of the dangers in the Somali activities; to his staff he heatedly asked: “How could this happen?”14 The president realized that adventuresome actions overseas had to be curtailed because they stood to jeopardize his domestic priorities.

The Somali lessons were further seared into the administration’s thinking when Congress held hearings on the Mogadishu debacle. During the review, it came to light that General Thomas Montgomery, the highest- ranked officer on the spot, had requested AC-130 gunships and armored tanks in mid-September. Secretary of Defense Aspin greeted the appeal with inaction. Yet, experts cast doubt on whether the heavy arms could have arrived in time for the October 3 assault.15 Two months after the snatch operation, Les Aspin resigned when a Congressional report held him and President Clinton responsible for the Somali blowup. By then, it was widely known that the White House wanted to rid itself of the ineffective former Congressman. The Oval Office replaced him with the Deputy

Secretary of Defense William Perry, who proved himself a much more able cabinet secretary.

The Clinton White House moved quickly to extricate the United States from Somalia. It canceled the armed pursuit of Aidid. Clinton pledged to help the Somalis “reach agreement among themselves so that they can solve their problems and survive when we leave.”16 Much to the chagrin of the comrades of the fallen SOF, the Washington administration required the US military to fly Aidid, the killer of American servicemen, to a peace meeting with other warlords and clan chiefs. A rickety peace deal was hammered out among participants, which did not hold after the American withdrawal. White House staffers disavowed the “mission creep” by Pentagon officials. In a formal statement four days after the Black Hawk Down incident, President Clinton pronounced about Somalia: “We have obligations elsewhere.” He added that it was not America’s job to “rebuild Somalia society.”17

Next, Washington reinforced the US military presence in and nearby Somalia. It sailed the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its accompanying warships off the coast. It inserted an additional 1700 US Army soldiers into the East African country and held 3600 shipboard Marines in reserve. This sizeable show of force was designed to look muscular rather than betray a cut-and-run retreat. Finally, the Clinton officials publicly blamed the UN for the Ranger raid. Such recriminations fell on receptive ears since many Americans held the world organization in low regard. In reality, the commando operations never fell under UN control; they were run by the US military.

Operation Restore Hope actually notched laudable benchmarks. Estimates placed the number of Somalis saved from starvation from 100,000 to 250,000. The Secretary of State put a favorable gloss on the result when he declared: “We leave the country in a lot better shape than [when] we went in.”18 Soon after the departure of the foreign forces and aid workers, the country sank again into interclan warfare. Aidid died as he lived, in a hail of bullets in 1996. In its return to endemic violence, Somalia represented the first of many Middle East states in recent times to undergo widespread murder and mayhem when civil order broke down, as later in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. The absence of foreign assistance in Somalia, it needs to be emphasized, led to a political vacuum. Into the bowels of this failed state walked al Qaeda, the fearsome terrorist network that instigated bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and afterward to foment other bloody attacks, including the September 11 terrorism.

The Somalia misstep strengthened anti-UN sentiments within the United States. It also temporarily damaged the credibility of the Clinton administration. In the short run, the Mogadishu street battle cast a dark shadow over the Clinton administration whenever crises abroad beckoned for US intervention. As such, it elevated the insular cyclical swing already rising in the American body politic after the Cold War.

 
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