A development that set an extremely unfortunate foreign policy precedent took place during the waning weeks of George H.W. Bush’s administration when the United States commenced a "humanitarian" military intervention in Somalia. Although that effort ostensibly operated under the auspices of the United Nations, Washington was firmly in command. The multi-sided conflict in Somalia among rival militias had spawned a serious famine, which U.S. and other Western officials – aided by a compliant news media – highlighted and hyped. In his television address to the American people, Bush himself stressed that the motive for the military operation was to help restore a reasonable degree of order so that food and medical supplies could flow to badly suffering Somali civilians.
The emphasis on purely humanitarian motives for the Somalia mission constituted a major shift in Washington’s justifications for the use of military force. Previously, thwarting alleged threats to US national security interests always dominated the narrative. Concerns about the liberty and well-being of indigenous populations, when they were invoked at all, were deemed secondary or even tertiary in nature. That clearly was the pattern in the Korean "police action," the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. Citations of supposed American security interests were the driving force even in lesser interventions, such as those in the Dominican Republic (1965), Lebanon (1958 and 1982-83), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and the Persian Gulf War (1991). The case for the Somalia intervention was strikingly different. Officials did not try to sell the absurd argument that Somalia was important to the security and liberty of the United States.
US leaders also adopted a very different position regarding news media coverage of the Somalia operation than they had with previous military interventions since the end of the Vietnam War. When Washington initiated Operation Restore Hope with amphibious troop landings near Somalia’s nominal capital, Mogadishu, the Pentagon granted reporters generous access. That willingness, despite the plethora of armed militias in the vicinity and the generalized disorder afflicting the country, cast serious doubts on the "need to protect the safety of journalists" justifications that officials had used for restricting press access during the US invasions of Grenada and Panama. But this time, US leaders were trying to market a humanitarian military mission that they were confident would be popular with the American public, so they wanted as much helpful media exposure as possible.
The media showed every willingness to be allies in that marketing campaign. The headline in the Los Angeles Times about the White House’s announcement of the mission: "Bush Sending Troops to Help Somalia’s Hungry Millions," was typical of the uncritical, if not outright laudatory, coverage. There was virtually no willingness in the mainstream press to question any aspect of the humanitarian intervention in Somalia, including whether Washington might have geostrategic ambitions to establish a military presence in that country and try to shape the outcome of the ongoing struggle for power.
It would have been a question worth asking. There were indications of such ambitions even in the early 1990s, and Washington’s interest in Somalia never fully abated; after the 9-11 attacks, the level of interest increased substantially. The United States conducted Special Forces missions until January 2021, and still continues to launch drone strikes.
Despite the official insistence that the motives for the December 1992 intervention were purely altruistic, Washington’s humanitarian mission soon morphed into a counterinsurgency effort primarily directed against the forces of one factional leader, Mohammed Farah Aideed (or Aidid). The Bush administration and the Pentagon had welcomed press coverage (especially television images) of US troops distributing food to hungry Somali children; but coverage of Cobra helicopter gunships obliterating human targets were decidedly less welcome. However, the latter increasingly reflected the reality of the Somalia intervention.
Official statements and press reports invariably described leaders of the feuding political factions as "warlords," and the various militias as "bandits" or "gangs" creating needless havoc. Ignoring or glossing over the deeper underlying societal divisions based on irreconcilable tribal and clan differences was essential to preserve the image of the United States as a humanitarian rescuer, not an outside power forcibly trying to shape Somalia’s future political and security orientation. The American people were misled about the nature of the turmoil in Somalia, and they were soon in for a nasty shock about the level of popular support for Aideed and the capabilities of his militia.
Clashes between US/UN forces and Aideed’s fighters began to take place in June 1993, and they soon became increasingly frequent. US leaders failed to understand – or chose to ignore – a fundamental political and military reality. Even if a US military intervention takes place because of genuine humanitarian motives, the intervention automatically works to the advantage of some factions and to the disadvantage of others in a country waging a multisided struggle. The US mission undermined Aideed, and he was not about to tamely accept that adverse outcome. Tensions mounted as attacks on US troops escalated during the summer and fall of 1993. The deteriorating situation culminated in the famous "Black Hawk down" episode on October 3 and 4 in Mogadishu that killed 18 US troops and wounded 75 more – as well as leaving hundreds of Somalis dead.
Fortunately, Bill Clinton’s administration then decided to bring the US intervention to an end before the fighting spiraled out of control and entangled the United States in a bloody Vietnam-style quagmire. As noted, though, the United States could not resist continuing to meddle in Somalia, albeit on a smaller, more focused scale. Moreover, neither the foreign policy establishment nor the mainstream news media lost their fondness regarding the idea of US military crusades for supposedly humanitarian purposes.
The folly in Somalia would be repeated in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. Proponents even used similar arguments as one of the justifications for Washington’s regime-change war in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, although those arguments played a secondary role to the panic mongering about Saddam’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. The Somalia intervention set an extremely toxic precedent, and US policymakers do not seem to have learned the appropriate lessons from that blunder or the later, even more disastrous, adventures.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.