nthposition online magazine

The Somali Legacy: Black Hawk Two


[ politics | opinion - february 04 ]

What a difference a decade makes. Years before Black Hawk Down became synonymous with a cheesy Hollywood popcorn flick, the events depicted in the movie played a pivotal role in the formulation of US foreign policy in the 1990s. It was the downing of two Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia in October 1993 and the reaction to the ensuing deaths, that caused President Clinton to withdraw from Somalia and to radically re-think US attitudes towards multilateral peacekeeping missions.

Fast-forward 10 years. In Iraq, each day brings fresh reports of casualties despite America's initial assertion that its "Mission [was] Accomplished." Amongst the casualties have been several troops killed in helicopter crashes: Welcome to Black Hawk II, The Sequel.

However, this is not a simple remake of the original. A number of facets are different this time around and those differences are all a result in the change in leadership in Washington DC. Gone is the president who would "feel America's pain." In his place, the compassionate conservative whose father initiated the original mission to Somalia in 1992 as a final throw of the dice in his beleaguered presidency. Rejected by the voters, George Bush the elder still had an ace up his sleeve: until 20 January, 1993, he could do as he pleased. Faced with the options of doing a) nothing b) sending US ground forces to Bosnia or c) assisting the UN in a peacekeeping mission to Somalia, the president chose the latter. It was a decision that would have a profound impact on the presidencies of his successor and his son.

The decision made itself; to have done nothing would have been to confirm the Democrat's allegations about Bush's failed presidency, to have intervened in Bosnia would have required Congressional support and a definitive plan of action, and most importantly, an exit strategy, none of which Bush had. Therefore, in light of his most successful action as president, the UN sponsored 1991 Gulf War, the outgoing president announced a mission of American benevolence, to feed the starving of Africa.

Of course, having called for a more pro-active US foreign policy throughout the campaign, there was little Clinton could say in opposition to the plans. Bush called the President-Elect to "update him on the continuing situation in Somalia", and promised to "stay in touch with the President-Elect on this issue." [1] This was no mutual formulation of policy however. "It's a process of information exchange rather than consultation", [2] said a Clinton official. The State Department was blunter: "they're not consulted". [3] No one was interested in the Clinton team's ideas or approval.

Not that they would have found much in the way of argument, certainly not over the mission's objectives. What differences arose, would be over motivation and policy determination. For whereas the driving force behind the Bush deployment was Paul Wolfowitz, Anthony Lake would be responsible for the mission come January 20th. The Prince of Darkness and the man soon to be dubbed "Lake Inferior" were not alike in thinking or action. Power politics was the driving force of one; human rights, the other. Lake had resigned from Kissinger's NSC staff over the bombing of Cambodia, whilst such a move would have been unimaginable to Wolfowitz. Yet both sought to ensure that the US took the lead in the rehabilitation of Somalia, working with the United Nations to ensure stability on the Horn of Africa.

That is not to say, however, that there was agreement in terms of the scope of the operation, the mission parameters or the exit strategy. The Bush team, of course, needed none of these, as they would be out of office long before such decisions were necessary. Intentionally or otherwise, President Bush ensured that his victor, so determined to focus on the domestic renewal of America, assumed office with over 25,000 troops deployed in an ill conceived, rapidly executed mission whose rationale changed on a daily basis.

Clearly, this was the last thing the administration had hoped for. Having campaigned on a domestic agenda, President Clinton was adamant that this was where his focus would remain. In so doing, he sought to replicate the approach adopted in 1981 by the incoming Reagan administration. Reagan's team had sought to keep foreign policy out of the headlines and ensure that nothing distract from their tax-cut proposals and New Federalist policies. [4] Indeed, as the new administration took over in January 1993, Clinton's advisers were clear enough on what they want to do: "Hand over the job of keeping order to a United Nations peacekeeping force - soon." [5] In an effort to expedite the speedy withdrawal of American troops, the administration eagerly agreed to Security Council Resolution 814, outlining a UN proposal to rebuild Somalia. The new undertaking, designated UNOSOM II, would take over from the initial US-led UNITAF mission, Operation Restore Hope.

This new UN-led operation would use expanded enforcement power and included a specific mandate to disarm the Somali factions. The new mission went beyond providing humanitarian relief and proposed that the UN facilitate "nation building," to get Somalia back on its feet by restoring law and order, shoring up the infrastructure and help to set up processes for establishing a representative government. It was this UN concept of nation building that would prove to be so contentious in coming months and would be used to tar the Clinton administration for years to come. It should be apparent, however, that this was a UN policy, not one initiated or imposed by the White House. At the time, however, since the switch from UNITAF to UNOSOM II ensured that American forces would be cut from 25,000 to 4,500, and because things were going so well in Somalia, few in Washington voiced their concerns. "In fact, the House of Representatives [..] decisively passed a resolution endorsing the nation building mission and favouring the use of American troops to support it, for several years if necessary." [6]

By the end of March, 28 nations had sent contingents to Somalia in support of the new militarised operation, and on 4 May, 1993, America officially handed over the command of the operations to the United Nations, as UNOSOM II began. President Clinton took the opportunity to welcome home a number of American troops at a ceremony on the White House lawn. "Your successful return reminds us that other missions lie ahead for our nation," he said. "You have proved that American leadership can help to mobilize international action to create a better world." [7] Whilst the event was intended to honour the troops, few missed the true rationale of the day, as the administration sought to project Bill Clinton as a credible Commander in Chief.

However a series of assaults on UN personnel during the summer of 1993 convinced the Clinton administration that the UN forces needed additional American firepower, and Task Force Ranger was deployed to rid Somali of its pre-eminent warlord. Their primary means of transportation would become a symbol of American losses in the region; the Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter.

The confusion that characterised the Somali operation from day one continued as the splits over continued deployment were becoming all too apparent. Writing in the 3 October edition of the Sunday Times, James Adams wrote prophetically, "The warlords in Somalia know that they only have to kill a few more American troops and the alliance of peacekeepers will crumble as the United States pulls out." [8] Later that day, Somali fighters shot down two American Black Hawk helicopters. In the ensuing battle, the US Rangers were surrounded by 400 of Aideed's troops, resulting in a ferocious firefight in which 18 Americans were killed.

Soon CNN began running footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the Mogadishu by angry crowds. President Clinton understood the reaction that such images would generate as in his opinion, "Americans are basically isolationist," he ventured. "They understand at a basic gut level Henry Kissinger's vital-interest argument. Right now the average American doesn't see our interests threatened to the point where we should sacrifice one American life." [9] As public approval for Clinton's Somali policy plummeted, Congress began calling for an immediate troop withdrawal. Senator Byrd called for an immediate end "to these cops and robbers operations," [10] while Senator John McCain, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee and former POW in Vietnam, insisted, "Clinton's got to bring them home." [11]

David Gergan reminded the president that when Ronald Reagan was faced with the death of US troops in Lebanon, he diverted attention by invading Granada. This was a very different administration, however, and one that had now decided to cut its loses in Somalia. "The Somali warlord didn't know it yet, but his clan had scored a major victory. Without US muscle, there was no way the UN could impose a government on Somalia without Aidid's cooperation." [12] The House of Representatives attempted to use the War Powers Resolution to direct the president to immediately remove US troops from Somalia. Whilst the Senate did not pursue the House proposal, Senator Byrd threatened to cut off all funding for the operation, charging "Americans by the dozens are paying with their lives and limbs for a misplaced policy on the altar of some fuzzy multilateralism." [13]

However, the President's decision to withdraw US forces served its purpose of preventing a revolt in Congress, where lawmakers welcomed the decision. Indeed, many on the Hill viewed the decision as a declaration of independence from the UN and the notion of blaming the entire incident on the UN became doctrinal in the coming months. It was understood that "the scale of the foreign policy reversals in Somalia destroyed the administration's willingness to pursue foreign policy goals aggressively." [14] It would certainly lead to a change in philosophy at the White House, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, "Creeping multilateralism died on the streets of Mogadishu." [15]

Following the Somali mission, much of the foreign policy debate during the 1990s would centre on the overseas deployment of US troops. One of the president's most ardent critics was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who claimed that since Clinton's inauguration, "US foreign policy had been marked by inconsistency, incoherence, lack of purpose, and a reluctance to lead." [16] However, it was intellectually dishonest for Republicans to accuse Clinton of having no strategy for getting out of Somalia, when neither Bush nor Cheney could explain how they planned to end the feeding mission and get out without the country reverting to the very same anarchy that prompted the American intervention in the first place.

Michael Mandelbaum who had advised the Clinton campaign on foreign policy said, "Whoever won the election in 1992 would have had to face a tough choice in 1993 regarding Somalia... The Bush people might have made a different choice than Clinton, and just pulled out, but they can't now say that they could have avoided that choice." [17] When President Clinton was asked for his response to the Bush criticism he clearly had to restrain himself. "I will say this. It may have been naive for anyone to seriously assert in the beginning you could go into a situation as politically and militarily charged as that one, give people food, turn around and leave, and expect everything to be hunky-dory." [18]

In the early 1990s, peacekeeping appeared to be an idea whose time had come. The United Nations would allow the domestically focused Clinton administration to attend to its mandated remit of economic renewal whilst still maintaining a world presence. It appeared that "if the Americans would not patrol every beat themselves then the United Nations would." [19] However, this was a status that did not long endure. Indeed, its premise was predicated on the false belief that the American people would tolerate American casualties in distant lands with little or no direct bearing on American national security, and that the United States Congress would continue to support the sitting president in matters of world affairs as it had during the Cold War. Both assertions proved to be flawed.

The Somali incident had severe implications for US foreign policy. The increasing criticism of the United Nations led to a change of heart by the administration with regard to the organisation. Whereas it had originally viewed the UN as its organisation of choice for dealing with the outside world, the debacle and the ensuing political turmoil surrounding the UN made the administration look elsewhere when future problems erupted overseas: The UN's misfortune would become the blessing of NATO. The crisis and particularly the reaction it received in Congress ensured that the President would be unable to recommend a deployment of US troops to Bosnia under a UN peacekeeping role. Just as the people of Somali had suffered throughout 1992 due to the American electoral timetable, so now the suffering in Bosnia would continue because of the repercussions of a perceived failing in US foreign policy.

The Somali mission was launched on a whim and its premise provided a release for an outgoing president's strong sense of moral purpose. "America alone cannot right the world's wrongs," Bush told the American people, "but we know that some crises in the world cannot be resolved without American involvement." [20] Both assertions were correct, but the Somali insertion was flawed in concept and execution, with mission parameters and procedures in flux from the start. The Somali mission "was a major intervention, undertaken by a lame-duck president, without congressional authority, and not in response to a local invitation." [21] Bush's rush to demonstrate his believe in the moral superiority of America sowed the seeds of political disaster in Somalia, by failing to provide for a graceful exit from the theatre of operations.

Somalia proved to be the start of a new decade of conflict as bitter in fighting, civil wars and intra-national conflicts dominated the 1990s. Rather than reinforcing American efforts to export human rights and to engage in conflict resolution, the events in Somalia served to convince Americans that such internal disputes were of no concern to the world's sole superpower.

Fast-forward a decade: No longer would Americans hear from their president when losses were announced, from a president biting his lower lip as he faced the nation. Now, silent strength would be the order of the day, as the leader of the free world remained out of sight in the face of adversity and setbacks. Public protest would be quashed, Congressional considerations ignored in the quest for victory. The post-September 11 world was changed. We did not realise at the time just how much safer the world had been in the shadow of the Two Towers.

The president had learnt the lessons of Somalia. The pre-emptive strike in Iraq would be an American operation, and the UN could go swing. This would not be an operation in nation building: it would be one of Regime Change. (Spot the difference?) Likewise, as the people of Rwanda had already discovered, the lesson of Somali with regard to Liberia was not to get involved. Bush junior would apply that lesson, as the people of a state, established by the United States as a harbour for returned slaves, were caught up in the middle of yet another African Civil War. Whether the people slowly starved to death or were shot up on the streets, Bush was not in a hurry to deploy the Marines. The Black Hawks would remain out of the African theatre. With no oil to protect, no Al Qaeda terrorists on the warpath, and no particular opportunities for Halliburton to exploit, the decision was, as the administration would view it, a No Brainer.

Now however, as the November election looms ever closer, Bush junior is learning the last lesson of his father's presidency: foreign escapades do not guarantee electoral success in the face of economic downturns and unemployment. Faced with the likely candidacy of Senator John F Kerry in November, Bush may be set to learn the lesson of another JFK: "The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world." [22] Perhaps soon we will see such a return to balance in US foreign policy.


1  Marlin Fitzwater, Statement by Press Secretary on the President's Discussions on Somalia, The White House, 2 December, 1992. [Back]
2  Bruce W Nelan 'Today, Somalia...' Time Magazine, 21 December, 1992. [Back]
3  George J Church, 'Out with a Bang', Time Magazine, 11 January, 1993. [Back]
4  John Brummett, High Wire, The Education of Bill Clinton, New York: Hyperion Books, 1994, p276. [Back]
5  George J Church, 'His seven most urgent decisions', Time Magazine, 25 January, 1993, p20. [Back]
6  George J Church, 'Anatomy of a Disaster', Time Magazine, 18 October, 1993. [Back]
7  George J Church, 'Somalia, Mission Half Accomplished', Time Magazine, May 17, 1993, p42. [Back]
8  James Adams, 'Allies ridicule US double-talk', Sunday Times 3 October, 1993. [Back]
9  George Stephanopoulos, All Too Human, A Political Education New York: Little and Brown, 1999, p214. [Back]
10  Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, London: Bantam Press, 1999, p451. [Back]
11  R W Apple Jr. 'Clinton Sending Reinforcements After Heavy Losses in Somalia', The New York Times, 5 October, 1993, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final Section A; Page 1; Column 1; Foreign Desk. [Back]
12  Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, London: Bantam Press, 1999, p453. [Back]
13  Helen Dewar and Kevin Merida, 'From Congress, More Questions', Washington Post, 5 October, 1993. [Back]
14  James Adams, 'Clinton foreign policy in tatters', The Sunday Times, 17 October, 1993. [Back]
15  William G Hyland, Clinton's World: Remaking American Foreign Policy, Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1999, p59. [Back]
16  Bob Dole, 'Shaping America's Global Future', Foreign Policy, Issue 98, pp29-43. [Back]
17  Thomas L Friedman, 'A Broken Truce: Clinton vs. Bush In Global Policy', The New York Times, 17 October, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Section 1; Page 1; Column 5; Foreign Desk. [Back]
18  Thomas L Friedman, 'A Broken Truce: Clinton vs. Bush In Global Policy', The New York Times, 17 October, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Section 1; Page 1; Column 5; Foreign Desk. [Back]
19  Alastair Burnett, 'Don't get involved - that's now the way of the world', Sunday Times, 26 September, 1993. [Back]
20  President George H W Bush, Address to the Nation on the Situation in Somalia, 4 December, 1992. [Back]
21  William G Hyland, Clinton's World: Remaking American Foreign Policy, Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1999, p53. [Back]
22  James Walsh, 'Confronting Chaos', Time. [Back]