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Compounding the Somali Tragedy

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The post-Cold War is proving to be a disorderly place. Conflicts restrained by the superpowers are now breaking out all over — in Africa, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. More wars could eventually explode in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

Tragic those these conflicts are, they need not involve the United States. The end of the superpower competition means the world is no longer a zero-sum game, with a foreign “loss” benefiting America’s adversaries. Somalia, for instance, was once Washington’s pawn in an international chess game against the Soviets, who were active in the Horn of Africa. But both the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet surrogate, Ethiopia, have disintegrated. The game is over.

Somalia’s lack of geopolitical value does not lessen the humanitarian concern, of course. But the world today is full of tragedy — Angola, Armenia, Cambodia, Georgia, Liberia, and Yugoslavia, to name just a few. The fundamental question is, should Washington compound the calamity by sending young Americans to their deaths in those conflicts? Is there any foreign cause for which 18-year-olds in this country are not expected to die?

Somalia has long been one of Africa’s basket cases — an economically destitute nation ruled by a venal autocrat who opportunistically shifted his country from the Soviet to American orbit for his own gain. Like many other African states, Somalia was never a true nation, but rather arose as a colonial amalgam. Civil war simmered for years, finally exploding to topple President Siad Barre in January 1991. After that, the country descended into chaos, with different warlords attacking each other and seizing relief workers’ foodstocks.

The result was mass starvation, prompting the Bush administration to deploy roughly 28,000 American troops to protect food shipments and bring order to the country. While the United Nations Security Council approved the operation and other nations contributed some forces, it, like the Korean and Persian Gulf wars, was largely an American show, with Washington paying for more than 80 percent and providing two-thirds of the soldiers. Now, Somalia is occupied by a formal U.N. force but America continues to provide the core of its fighting strength.

Intervention for what appears to be almost completely humanitarian grounds is unprecedented. The closest national interest-based arguments made in favor of the deployment were that it preserved America’s international leadership role and promoted domestic morale by strengthening the population’s “can-do” psychology. Neither of these is particularly persuasive, however. American prestige did not seem to decline when Washington sat by as Ethiopia disintegrated in civil war, Liberia was overwhelmed by a bloody three-way conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over territory, and Georgia battled a separatist movement. With the globe’s largest economy and military, and most dominant culture and political ideology, Washington’s influence is guaranteed. Countries are not likely to think less of the U.S. if it is selective about when it puts its soldiers at risk.

Of course, the humanitarian impulse is vitally important. The desire to save lives is obviously worthy. And a willingness to send food and other private, humanitarian aid reflects the most generous impulses of the American people. But U.S. governmental intervention is a very different matter.

Public officials have spared no effort patting each other on the back for their international beneficence. The problem, however, is that they are being generous with other people’s money and other people’s lives. At least the American soldiers are not conscripts, though even that probably would not bother most intervention enthusiasts. Nevertheless, most servicemen and women joined with some patriotic duty of defending the U.S., not policing the world. An American Foreign Legion the Marines Corps is not. The only purpose that soldiers’ lives should be put at risk is to protect their own political community.

Still, the loss of Americans lives so far has been relatively small — though the attack on Mohamed Farah Aidid’s forces may have inaugurated a bloodier phase of our involvement — and a few score deaths may seem a small price to pay for thousands or conceivably tens of thousands of Somalis saved. Of course, we will never know how many are actually alive only because of the presence of U.S. troops. The worst killing was always geographically limited, and some progress in restoring order had been made in those areas even before the arrival of the soldiers, with organizations like the Red Cross and Great Britain’s Save the Children Fund reported that 90 percent of their food shipments were being delivered. Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, formerly of the human rights organization Africa Watch, pointed out that clan negotiation had virtually ended looting in the town of Baidoa for the preceding two months, an agreement that collapsed once the Marines arrived. Moreover, many warlords simply shifted their activities in response to the Americans’ presence. Complains Brigitte Doppler of the French Medecins San Frontiers, “The number of bandit attacks increased. The bandits have moved to places where we are working but where there are no coalition forces.”

Even if the number of Somalis saved is large, however, the numbers simply can’t be compared. While the Somalis’ lives are no less valuable than those of American soldiers, the primary duty owed by this government is to its own citizens, including those in the military.

Indeed, Somalia raises two disturbing issues of precedent. The first is, who will make American policy? Intervention in Somalia largely appears to have been dictated by shocking television coverage — what else distinguishes Somalia from so many other human catastrophes? This is, however, a poor means of deciding when American troops should be deployed around the world. As military columnist Harry Summers observes, “Passions are a shaky foundation upon which to build a military commitment.”

The second involves the criteria for intervention. Either we must be prepared to say that Somali lives are more important than those of Armenians, Bosnians, and Liberians, or we must be prepared to garrison the globe for humanitarian reasons. While other nations, and especially the free-riding Europeans, might find that to be a pleasant prospect, it would not be in the interest of the American people, who would be expected to fund and man the operations. The end result would not only be great expense and loss of life, but also likely entanglement in a variety of esoteric, virulent struggles with no implications for American security. With the threat of terrorism and spread of both missiles and weapons of mass destruction, one or another foreign adventure might lead to unexpectedly expensive complications.

As difficult as it might be for Americans with a “can-do” spirit to admit, not every international problem can be solved. Nor is it Washington’s duty to try to resolve every one. What is going on in Somalia, and many other places around the globe, is pitiable. But these tragedies should not be expanded by involving the U.S. government. Governmental officials have no right to risk American lives in conflicts that do not directly concern their own political community.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)