A first-term American President lacking in foreign-policy experience commits American forces to a civil war on the coast of Africa on an ostensibly humanitarian UN-directed mission of uncertain aims with an esoteric and incomprehensible code name: We’ve been here before, Somalia, 1993. Then it was Operation Gothic Serpent, now it’s Operation Odyssey Dawn.
To be historically accurate, the first President George Bush, not Bill Clinton, embroiled our troops in Somalia, sending them on the assignment of fighting famine. In those heady days immediately at the end of the Cold War when the United States bestrode the globe with the title of the first and only “hyper-power”–fresh from the annihilation of Saddam Hussein in the original Gulf War–humanitarian missions like food delivery seemed the sole future of America’s military: no other challenge presented itself. I seem to recall the humor of our troops “landing” on Somalia, Normandy style, and being greeted with some embarrassment by cameras and photographers who had arrived, conventionally, ahead of them.
Yet it was Clinton who, after UN troops–specifically the Pakistanis–began to be targeted by the Aidid faction in Somalia, approved the mission creep that caused American forces to shift their role from passing out food to hungry Somalis. Instead, they were to engage in a manhunt and capture the warlord leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Ten months into Clinton’s term in October 1993, this change of goal and tactics resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu, which would be the worst American close combat since the end of the Vietnam War. Although American soldiers fought valiantly and likely inflicted 50 casualties for every one taken, the image that would remain of this encounter was that of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. So much for American omnipotence.
Eighteen years later, are we embarking on a similarly ill-fated and quixotic adventure? Thursday’s New York Times gives little assurance we are not:
As NATO takes over control of airstrikes in Libya, and the Obama administration considers new steps to tip the balance of power there, the coalition has told the rebels that if they endanger civilians, they will not be shielded from possible bombardment by NATO planes and missiles, just as the government’s forces have been punished.
“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”
CNN reports that we are aiding fewer than 1,000 armed Libyan rebels. Already we have CIA agents providing support on the ground and have flown more sorties and fired more cruise missiles than twice the number of rebel fighters allied with us. The big debate at the moment is whether to supply arms to our Libyan allies (some of whom are known to be Al Qaeda or at least Al Qaeda sympathizers).
This, too, is like Somalia, which later became a stronghold of Al Qaeda, whereas Aidid previous to his conflict with the US was perceived as the typical factional warlord–not an Islamist. In fact, Osama Bin Laden became convinced the US was a paper tiger after observing how poorly armed peasants could overwhelm superior American arms through force of numbers at the Battle of Mogadishu.
If we think we may need to bomb these “allies” in the future, therefore, is it really wise to be arming them with the means of retaliating against us?
Although America’s station in the world today is much diminished from 1993, our attitude in Libya reeks of the same arrogance and belief that we can micro-manage a war on the cheap because those we are fighting are so vastly inferior to us. Never mind it is their country, never mind we have no clear idea even of what we want to do or how we’re going to do it. Never mind that no one believes aerial bombardment can avoid the civilian casualties that are supposed to be the casus belli here–any more than food could be distributed in 1993 in the face of gunfire.
As Charles Krauthammer describes it, the Obama administration believes we can play “celestial referee” in Libya–aloof and omnipotent, like the Greek gods at Troy. The soldiers we send, however, are made of real flesh and blood. One hopes that they will not, as in 1993, find themselves descending from their commander-in-chief’s Olympus in similarly humiliating and tragic fashion.