Another Civil War Exacerbated

With Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine already in or sliding toward civil war, one can correctly label the Bush administration’s foreign policy the most incompetent in recent memory. But the problem lies deeper than that. The hyperactive, and often counterproductive, U.S. foreign policy is a bipartisan problem, best illustrated by the sordid U.S. history in Somalia.

Ever since the Korean War, through Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States has pursued an interventionist policy abroad that is disconnected from the historical roots of its traditional foreign policy of military restraint overseas. This traditional restraint, with lapses here and there, dominated U.S. foreign policy from the nation’s founding until the Korean War. In fact, by defending the then economically backward South Korea, which continues to have only limited strategic significance for the United States, Democrat Harry Truman became the first of a long line of consecutive activist presidents. More recently, Bill Clinton was the modern-day champion for the greatest number of overseas interventions – meddling in Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Sudan. While Clinton avoided blundering into a large quagmire on the ground, as the current Bush administration has done, his energetic foreign policy shows that the activist U.S. foreign policy transcends party lines.

U.S. policy in Somalia, across the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, is a classic example of U.S. activism making things worse over time. In the early 1990s, the administration of George H.W. Bush sent U.S. forces to Somalia to guard relief supplies from warring factions. Although "mission creep" – the expansion of a mission once U.S. forces are on the ground – began to affect the operation in Somalia even before Clinton became president, he greatly exacerbated it. Like the U.S. peacekeeping adventure in Lebanon in the early 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, the mission in Somalia expanded into fighting on one side of a civil war. The result was also the same: When a relatively small number of U.S. forces were killed, both Reagan and Clinton pulled the plug on the intervention, arguably leaving both countries worse off than when the United States arrived.

In Somalia, after the United States and United Nations forces left in 1994, the country slid into an even worse civil war. One of the factions in this internecine conflict was a radical Islamist contingent. This faction didn’t get that much traction until the current Bush administration ordered the CIA to support the unpopular warlords against it. Suddenly, the Islamists, called Islamic Courts Union (ICU), became wildly popular and took over the southern part of the country, including the capital Mogadishu. The ICU is sympathetic to al-Qaeda, harbors its followers, has forces that have been trained by the group, and is led by Hassan Dahir Aweys, who has links to al-Qaeda.

The United States, having largely created this disastrous situation, then exacerbated it. The United States has been left supporting the weak and despised Somali government, which has been surrounded by the ICU’s forces in the town of Baidoa. The United States tacitly allowed the Ethiopian military, a traditional rival of Somalia, to send troops to shore up the precarious and fractious Somali government. This action, of course, caused a "rally around the flag" effect in Somalia, with the radical ICU benefiting from the nationalist outpouring. A visit by Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, to Ethiopia also fueled this sentiment in Somalia.

In addition, jihadists from around the world may very well pour into the country to help Islamic Somalia fend off the "foreign aggression" of Ethiopia – as happened in the 1980s in Afghanistan after the Soviets attacked and more recently in Iraq after the United States invaded. Furthermore, al-Qaeda could use its safe haven in Somalia to launch attacks on other countries, as it did when the friendly Taliban controlled Afghanistan.

If this isn’t bad enough, the Ethiopians’ invasion of Somalia has caused Eritrea, another of their rivals, to provide the ICU with thousands of men to fight. Many analysts now worry that a regional war could inflame the entire Horn of Africa.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek once said that governments almost always do the wrong thing. He was talking about the economic realm, but he could have also been talking about U.S. foreign policy toward Somalia during the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations. Sometimes, doing nothing gets better results than counterproductive activism.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.