The Somalia Syndrome Continues to Go Untreated

Jason McLure had a good article in Newsweek last week giving the history and latest sad news on Somalia:

An estimated 3.8 million need humanitarian aid (fully half the population), according to the U.N.’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia, which calls the crisis the worst since 1991–92. In the past six months alone, the number of people forced from their homes by fighting—between the country’s barely functional transitional government and Islamist insurgents—has grown by 40 percent, to 1.4 million. Most live in squalid camps that a new report from Oxfam calls “barely fit for humans.”

It is, however, easy to miss the bigger picture in McLure’s story. I call it “the Somalia Syndrome.” Here is how I explained it in the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in January:  

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

Try telling that to George W. Bush.

When Somalia, after fifteen years of violent anarchy, finally found a government that would bring a modicum of security and liberty to its citizens, the President supported regime change because, well, he didn’t like their style. The regime’s name was the Islamic Courts Union, and as you can probably guess, Washington didn’t expect them to join the War on Terror too readily.

The Bush administration turned to Ethiopia, who invaded, triggering a civil war that is now almost three years old. One-tenth of the population has been killed. In the United States, the equivalent body count would be about 30 million.

If the aim was to get the bad guys, they missed their target. The Islamic Courts Union may not have lived up to our ideal of the separation between church and state, but they made it very clear that their first priority would be bringing social justice and peace to the country—something Somalis haven’t seen in quite some time. Moreover, it was popularly supported and just might have been Somalis’ one hope for freedom. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of Somali lives would have been spared.

If the goal was to make the United States safer, they failed even more miserably. Terrorist groups have actually increased. Whereas Somalia had little, if any, connection to al Qaeda before 2006, now the Shabab, an openly pro-al Qaeda jihadist group, is flourishing.

So let’s see, we broke international law, cost millions of people their freedom, precipitated the death of thousands of innocent lives, and made our own country less safe. Even if the Islamic Courts Union conformed to our wildest nightmare—which would contradict all historical evidence about their intent—they would be hard pressed to match that record.

It’s nothing new.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has advocated regime change whenever we didn’t like a foreign government. (Okay, we’ve been doing it longer than that, but the Cold War was when we made it a regular part of our arsenal.)

Because such parts of our history have been covert or just unpleasant memories, we brush them aside as exaggerated yarns of international intrigue, maybe even political propaganda. And so, most Americans live comfortably unaware of Somalia-like military actions that have been proven by CIA documents and the like: Iran (twice), Guatemala (twice), Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq (thrice), Chile, Afghanistan, Turkey, Nicaragua, Republic of Ghana, Venezuela, and the Palestinian Authority.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, one would think such operations would lose their allure. Sadly, it seems our government learned the wrong lesson when the Berlin Wall fell. Again, when it comes to American history, we have an uncanny ability to remember only what we want to.

The conventional wisdom goes like this: After forty years of détente and containment, Ronald Reagan swashbuckled into the White House, and the Soviet Union backed down. They knew he meant business. Reagan fought them on so many fronts that, when combined with his missile shield and increased military spending, they went bankrupt trying to compete.

But numbers don’t lie, and they tell a different story altogether. The Soviet Union’s defense spending did not change much throughout the 1980s. As a percentage of GNP, it stayed about the same. No, the Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason that economists said it would: Communism does not work.

After 9/11, Islamic terrorism became Enemy #1, and the old mentality—show our strength, beat back every advance, ramp up military spending, and rub out every last anti-American regime—took hold. Washington still hasn’t learned that unfriendly governments are best beaten just as the Soviet Union was—by internal instability, not military defeat.

Still, the myth persists.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it in different terms a few months ago when he said of Iran, “When you have leverage, talk. When you don’t have leverage, get some. Then talk.” If I tell you to do as I say or I’ll invade your country, that’s leverage—but it’s also illegal, immoral, and counterproductive if my goal is to create a peaceful community. Leverage did not bring down the Soviet Union, but it did increase the body count, drain the treasury, and multiply our enemies just about every time the United States overthrew a country in the last sixty years.

The empiricist in me says things need to change.

We can start by abiding by international law, openly conversing with all nations, and ending military aid to countries that are, in many ways, worse than the countries we criticize. If you’re worried that gas prices will increase when we stop propping up, say, Saudi Arabia, don’t be. With the money we save by ending military aid, we can cut taxes at home. Not only is that an implicit carbon tax swap that helps the environment without costing economic growth, but it makes the world a safer place.

Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea may be the most talked-about foreign problems of the last eight years, but they are symptoms of a greater ailment that has gripped our country for over sixty years. May the new Obama administration be the beginning of the end to the Somalia Syndrome.

Unfortunately, nine months after I wrote this column, it is clear that the Obama administration has fallen under the spell of the Somalia Syndrome with its exploits in Afpak. (For more details on how this disastrous policy tempted and snared them, check out Rory Stewart’s July essay in the London Review of Books.) Council on Foreign Relations expert Bronwyn Bruton draws the conclusion perfectly at the end of McLure’s article:

I think that the main thing is recognizing how little capacity we have to solve the problem in Somalia. To solve the problem would require a nation-building effort, and there’s no reason to believe it would be more successful in Somalia than it has been in Afghanistan. I think the question is: what can the international community do to get out of the way?