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 The relative degree of orderliness that the Islamists brought to Mogadishu has been replaced by a return to the chaos and violence of the years before.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?)