No comparison

Until a year ago, few Americans could have found Somalia on a world map, but gruesome pictures of starving children touched our sensibility, and we demanded that Bush do something to end the horror of mass starvation. Before he made a decision to land troops, he confirmed with the president-elect who concurred with Bush’s plan to use U.S. troops to clear the roads to move desperately needed food to various regions of that wartime country. By spring the worst was over, but the Clinton administration and the Pentagon feared that a quick withdrawal would mean a return of bloated stomachs and pencil-thin limbs. American troops are frustrated because they were told that they were sent to help a desperate people seeking relief from harm. Yet, these same people are now killing American troops in firefights. The longer American GIs remain in Mogadishu, the more the various clans have come to resent a foreign presence. Since summer, the number of violent incidents has risen dramatically. With each new casualty, more American political leaders have called for a withdrawal of American troops. Though senators and pundits see Somalia in the news, each perceives the specter of Vietnam, where the United States poured billions of dollars and one-half million troops into a long and unwinnable war.

At the same time, Mohammed Aidad has been compared to Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam. There is growing fear that Clinton will get bogged down and see no alternative but to expand the conflict, just as Johnson did in the 1960’s.

Public debate over Somalia should examine the issue from all aspects; however, discussion has fallen into the trap of analogy. Whatever General Aidad might be, he is not Ho Chi Minh nor is the Somalia another Vietnam. This generation of historians and pundits has been quick to point out the flaws of the previous generation that reacted to all circumstances as one of each were a replay of the Munich appeasement of 1938. Whether the Berlin Airlift of 1948, Korea, Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf War of 1991, American leaders defined all enemies as if each was another Adolph Hitler. As Bush was wrong to define Saddam Hussein in such terms, this current group of pundits is equally wrong to define Somalia as another Vietnam. Whether to remain or withdraw, U.S. policy should be founded on something more reliable than analogy. Perhaps Hegel’s adage is true: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” As a nation, let us debate the issue on its own merits, and not as a comparison to some event in the past. If we make proper use of history, I cannot guarantee a success; without proper use of history, however, I can promise that our rate of failure will increase significantly.

Thomas E. Graham