Eye on the United States

The Ghost of Somalia

Drawing lessons from Hollywood: A still from the film Black Hawk Down shows actors playing U.S. soldiers descending on Mogadishu, Somalia (Columbia Pictures).

Ridley Scott’s new action film Black Hawk Down is playing to packed houses in America. It is not something for those with sensitive hearing or those who dislike Hollywood patriotism. But if you can stand an hour’s worth of automatic fire, you will see an extremely well-executed explanation of the past 10 years of world history.

Black Hawk Down is played out in Mogadishu during the disastrous period in October 1993 when the hunt for the warlord Muhammed Farah Aideed resulted in the death of 18 Americans and 1,000 Somalis. Two helicopters were shot down over enemy territory. The rescue operation turned into bloody chaos. Two weeks later, President Clinton called the troops home. The multinational operation to save African lives ended in tragedy, not just for the local population and the United States, but for the entire concept of humanitarian intervention. The videotape of maimed Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu became one of the most important images of the 1990s.

The message was clear: A single dead soldier was enough to send the superpower packing if its own interests were not threatened in a way that could be easily explained to American voters. This meant U. S. representatives the world over became even greater targets. It meant a green light for genocide, since there was no longer a global police force ready to run to the defense of human rights.

What happened in Rwanda and Bosnia can barely be understood if you forget what happened in Somalia. A series of factors contributed to the worsening situation: Clinton’s fixation on opinion polls and a successful war; the hopeless pursuit of one single warlord in a nation of warlords; and the flawed conclusion that military means are useless in civil wars and humanitarian crises.

After Somalia, it was clear that there were blank spaces on the map where no outsider dared to lift a finger to stop injustice. The Tutsi in Kigali and the men in Srebenica paid dearly for this new world order, where “Yankee Go Home” wasn’t just a slogan but official policy.

In light of detailed information currently leaking out about American operations in Afghanistan, the history of the 1990s is in some respects even more tragic. What could the intelligence services, the special forces, and satellite-guided bombs have achieved in Africa and the Balkans if only the political will had been there?

In the vacuum left after communism’s demise, violence and anarchy were targeted as the new enemies of democracy. What finally forced NATO to intervene in Bosnia was the opinion that the future of the alliance itself was in the balance. Men such as Mladic and Karadzic were the new enemies; if they were allowed to wreak havoc freely, you might as well roll over.

But since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the focus has shifted. The definition of “enemy” has narrowed, but the willingness to intervene has increased. Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that universal human rights have a higher priority than before.

The operation in Afghanistan has revolutionized modern warfare. Small special forces with air support and direct channels to intelligence services can take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses with a minimum of bloodshed. In terms of the history and terrain of Afghanistan, it is a small miracle that it took such limited effort to topple the Taliban regime without committing the mistakes of Somalia or awakening the wrath of the population.

Sweden might learn something from that. Or shall we continue to pay 40 billion Swedish kronor a year for a defense force that produces pea soup and a few polite U.N. battalions?