Update on the Horn of Africa

Just a quick note on this issue. Withywindle (who, judging from many comments made to me at the AHA meeting, has developed a cult following through his comments here) asks if I’ve changed my views based on the last two weeks of events in Somalia.

Not really, and for the same reason that I didn’t change my view that Iraq was a disastrous mistake after the first month of combat operations there (unlike, say, a certain leader who landed on an aircraft carrier festooned with a banner saying, “Mission Accomplished”). My views about why Iraq was a bad idea in every respect didn’t have much to do with short-term success in conventional warfare against Saddam Hussein’s military.

My views on why strong US involvement against Islamists in Somalia is a mistake are similar. The Islamists have been routed for the moment, but consider the prospects ahead. The “legitimate government” in whose name this rout has taken place is a weak, Potemkin village government with little or no credibility within the borders of Somalia. Its military capacity resides almost entirely in an occupation by troops from a neighboring autocratic state which is widely despised by Somalis (if there is anything which is a unifying belief among Somalis today, it is dislike of Ethiopia). The relative degree of orderliness that the Islamists brought to Mogadishu has been replaced by a return to the chaos and violence of the years before. Weapons and explosives are about as easy to obtain in most of Somalia as McDonald’s hamburgers are in American cities. Most of the young men who were willing to serve the Islamic Courts Union have melted away into the general population with the coming of Ethiopian troops.

That all strikes me as a scenario that the United States ought to have as little to do with as possible. Hit al-Qaeda directly if you must, if you’ve got truly strong intelligence about the specific presence of specific individuals or resources. Consider me a skeptic on that score, given the numerous intelligence failures of the last decade and a half in northeastern Africa, not to mention the Middle East. The more we’re seen as the hidden bosses behind Ethiopian occupation, and as directly coordinating the unfolding of events, the more we give legitimacy and life to the Islamists we seek to oppose over the longer haul. Moreover, the more we entwine our national interests with as shaky and weak an entity as the “legitimate government” of Somalia, the more we will inevitably face a choice further down the road about whether to invest still more military and financial resources in propping it up, or allowing it to collapse. (Sound familiar?)

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5 Responses to Update on the Horn of Africa

  1. withywindle says:

    I have a cult? Tell me more!

    “If you want to follow me, you’ve got to play pinball.”

    “You are all individuals!”

    I do get the sense that you didn’t anticipate even a temporary success against the Islamists–and that your doom-and-gloom about an active American foreign policy was therefore overdone. Obviously, Things Can Turn Out Badly. I would say that all policy is meant to have positive effects of finite duration–NATO has anomie now, but wasn’t it worth setting up for its decades of relevance? It seems to me one ought to set against your pessimism about the long-term consequences of intervention bot the distinct negatives of allowing the Islamist government of Somalia to continue, with metastasizing effect, and the quite positive short-term gain to our interests. Will there be troubles down the road? Sure. But I rather think there were worse troubles down the road we just short-circuited. All things are contingent and imperfectly forseeable, of course. But circling back to the main point: a reality-based theory of foreign policy (to coin a phrase) ought to be falsifiable, and I do think the events of the last few weeks in Somalia have falsified any universally pessimistic attitude toward the effectiveness of the assertion of American power abroad.

    Incidentally, using a minimum of American direct power and a maximum of operation through local proxies surely satisfies some of your policy preferences? Or, shall we say, if we are going to intervene at all, isn’t this a more Burkean way of proceeding?

    A note on your last post: I don’t really have the frame of mind that lends itself toward commenting on a blog of my own–I think I do better reacting to other people, and lurking in comments sections. So I’m quite grateful to you for providing a good home for me to lurk in; and I trust its life cycle doesn’t end anytime soon.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think my feeling on Somalia is that we’d be better off at about three more degrees removed from Ethiopia as a proxy, in fact, better off if we showed a lot of distaste for its actions. Ethiopia is making claims that it wants an AU force in place to substitute for its troops. Let’s just say I’m a skeptic that it wants such, and also I’d be amazed if any of the significant AU states are dumb enough to step up to the plate and make their troops targets for the inevitable insurgency that’s going to appear.

    I think the Burkean option here is, if and when you have seriously credible intelligence about a very substantial al-Qaeda presence, you hit them hard and quietly in the night, don’t especially advertise it, and otherwise let Somalia sort itself out (or not).

  3. “–I think I do better reacting to other people, and lurking in comments sections.”

    I understand this very well. Though I do have posting priveleges at The Valve, and use them fairly often, I enjoy commenting on other people’s posts just as much as I do making my own. And, like you, I often make fairly long comments. It’s nice to have others set up an issue and to then work within, or against, their framework.

  4. “You are all individuals!”

    I’m not.

  5. withywindle says:

    Don’t tell Damon.

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