A self-inflicted torture of futility

Washington—In the last year of the last Democratic presidency before the current one, the United States invaded a country three times the size of France, using a force of eight helicopters. Americans’ fury about the debacle at Desert One intensified when an Iranian cleric desecrated the body of an American soldier.

Now the United States is at war in Somalia, where American bodies are playthings of Somalis whom one senator calls “infidels.” That is a nice bit of 19th century name-calling, in the tradition of “lesser breeds without the law” and

So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy,

at your ‘ome in the Sudan;

You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen

but a first-class fightin’ man.

Does that jar your late 20th century sensibilities? Too bad. If we are going to practice colonialism somewhere east of Suez, we had better brush up on our Kipling. You say it’s not colonialism because we are not seeking dominion over palm and pine? True, we are not. Today’s colonialism-of-compassion lacks even the redeeming clarity of rapaciousness. But many old-time imperialists had a robust altruism of the sort that inspired a turn-of-the-century senator to say we would civilize the Philippines right up to the level of Kansas City.

The administration seems to think that the secret of success in Somalia is better night vision equipment for armored fighting in Mogadishu’s congested neighborhoods. The theory du jour in Washington is that “getting” warlord Aided would make Somalia safe for the people sent there to make it safe for Somalians. People who believe that evidently think the civic culture, or lack thereof, that bred Aidid will breed no others like him.

But people hot to go “get” him in the back streets of Mogadishu should first visit a video store and rent the movie “The Battle of Algiers.” Their ardor for urban warfare may be cooled by this dramatization of French soldiers hunting enemies in Algiers.

If we do not have the stomach for full-blooded colonialism—we don’t, and shouldn’t—we should get out quickly. The alternative is a slow self-inflicted torture of futility in a place the flavor of which is given by this from The Washington Post:

“On the Pentagon’s color-coded maps of downtown Mogadishu, nearly every important road—including the Afgoi and Jaale Siade Roads abutting U.N. headquarters, the K-4 traffic circle linking the airfield and port, and the 21 October Road in the north—appears in red. The map key defines red as meaning, ‘High Threat (Multiple Attacks).”‘

It is said that if U.S. forces are withdrawn U.S. “credibility” or “influence” or something will suffer, spoiling our ability to function well in such situations. Good. There should be no more such situations. Furthermore, when considering apocalyptic warning about how withdrawal from Somalia will annihilate U.S. power, consider this:

In 1975, helicopters lifting off the U.S. Embassy in Saigon announced the loss of a war, but 14 years later the fall of the Berlin Wall sealed the U.S. victory in the Cold War. In 1983 one truck bomb blew U.S. forces out of Lebanon, but 10 years later the White House lawn was the venue for signing an Israeli-PLO peace agreement.

The Wall Street Journal say we should not “cut and run” because that “would make a hash of U.S. leadership in future brushfires.” All in favor of American participation in Third World brushfires, line up over there with the wall Street Journal editorializes. They are rightly skeptical about the efficacy of the U.S. government in, say, south central Los Angeles but they believe it can exercise successful leadership in distant chaos. For the Journal, skepticism stops at the water’s edge

President Clinton, who has been relaxed about sharing his role as commander in chief with an Egyptian civil servant named Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is warned by the Journal that—heaven forbid!—Congress is thinking about participating in making foreign policy by voting for senator Byrd’s measure to shut down the Somalia misadventure. Says the Journal of the President:

“Either he protects—and uses—his authority as commander in chief or a committee of 535 armchair generals will fill the vacuum. They’re not good at it. Congress doesn’t create foreign policy; it vetoes it, as would the Byrd amendment.”

But vetoing folly is dignified work, not to mention a constitutional duty for legislators who too often are as negligent about their duties as they are attentive to their privileges.