The New York Times reports this week that U.S. Special Forces and air units were operating in Somalia during the recent fighting that drove Islamist forces from Mogadishu, a fact that comes as no surprise. The Bush administration, in essence, made a second, more successful pass at waging war by proxy in Somalia. Whereas previously Bush agents had attempted to stem the rising tide of Islamism by providing cash and weapons to clan warlords, in this second phase they have partnered with the Ethiopian military to undo the Islamist takeover that the first proxy war failed to prevent. Though the recent campaign has managed to install the internationally recognized Provisional Government of Somalia in the capital, the rapidly degenerating situation provides another sign of the incompetence and shortsightedness of Bush foreign policy.
The use of US air power underscores Bush administration priorities. Helicopter gunships targeted suspected Al Qaeda operatives active in Somalia; this appears to be the central strategic goal around which the entire recent campaign was built. This narrow focus upon military responses to the threat of Al Qaeda is in lock step with Bush policy since the administration's inception, and evinces the same flawed strategic thinking that has set the cause of US security so far back in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Al Qaeda operatives may well have been killed in these US raids, the overall campaign has done little to deny Al Qaeda safe haven and strategic purchase in Somalia. An Islamist insurgency has begun to wreak havoc in Mogadishu, and America's Ethiopian partners are withdrawing, having no will to sustain anything close to the level of casualities the US has endured in Iraq.
Here again is a lesson that the Bush White House seems determined to ignore no matter how many times they encounter it. Al Qaeda suffers very little from momentary personnel losses, as it is a political movement that requires few warm bodies for front-line action and is constantly recruiting and replenishing its human resource base. Attacking and killing Al Qaeda's standing personnel will never have a long term strategic effect unless such an effort is paired with an exponentially more intense campaign directed at its political recruitment capacities. The Bush administration, however, seems satisfied that "finding the terrorists" and "killing the terrorists" can stand in place of a genuine long-term foreign policy. This is the essence of the ludicrous "fly-paper" theory propounded in support of the Iraq war. In the same way that the Bush administration fails to understand that the momentary benefit of killing Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq is vastly offset by the strategic advantages of fertile anarchy and safe haven that have accrued to Al Qaeda as a result of the US invasion; they cannot see that the threat of Al Qaeda in Somalia will never be ameliorated until order and relative prosperity return to that beleaguered nation.
Where Iraq had no significant Al Qaeda presence prior to the US invasion, growing Al Qaeda operations in Somalia do pose a clear and present danger to US security. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Somalia could benefit from a US-led multilateral intervention. The Bush administration has not undertaken a more robust intervention in Somalia for three reasons: 1)though such an intervention would require military forces, it would more urgently require lengthy, intense efforts at diplomacy and economic aid for which the Bush White House has little patience; 2)such an intervention would provide little commercial profit to US enterprises akin to oil revenues to be garnered in Iraq; 3)the crippling commitment of US military forces in Iraq precludes robust action elsewhere in the globe.
One might object that to criticize Bush policy in both Iraq and Somalia is a contradiction in terms. Where Bush is held to task for being too aggressive in the former instance he is condemned for failing to be aggressive enough in the latter. But the issue is not whether aggressive tactics are good in and of themselves, it is whether our leaders have the foresight and knowledge required to understand when and where they might be applied to best effect in the post-9/11 world. Somalia is a completely failed state which has been the subject of many years of desperate international efforts to rebuild state infrastructure and repair civil society. If the US had stepped in to provide genuine leadership in this instance it would have garnered copious good will and enjoyed the support and cooperation of virtually the entire community of nations. Bringing order to Somalia would be arduous and require sacrifice to be sure, as the "Black Hawk Down" incident of the Clinton administration showed. But the prospects for success in Somalia have always been better than Iraq, and (prior to the US invasion of 2003, at least) the task was more vital to the global struggle against Al Qaeda.
The Bush administration's recourse to war by proxy in Somalia is more than an opportunity lost. Coupled with its application of aggressive force where Al Qaeda is lacking yet oil is abundant, it sends the signal to the rest of the world that the US will only take on the commitment of an extended intervention when there is economic gain to be had. The Bush White House has abdicated the moral authority of "world policeman" in favor of the image of "world profiteer." In the political struggle against Al Qaeda this is a tragic misstep. Many have noted that Al Qaeda's ideology is as imperialist as any. Even as this is apparent, enough (for Al Qaeda's needs) young Muslims throughout the world would rather sign on to create an Islamic imperium if they feel that the alternative is an American corporate imperium. Hopefully the next US administration will have the courage and wisdom to embrace the challenge of nation-building in all its complexity and diversity throughout the globe. Perhaps then the moral authority of the US will slowly be redeemed, and the terrible damage of the Bush years can begin to be undone.