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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Up to their necks

(November 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The Clinton administration now faces a dilemma. It has embarked on a military adventure which has become extremely unpopular’

After it won a decisive victory against Iraq in 1991, George Bush declared that the US had overcome the Vietnam Syndrome – the effects of its humiliating defeat in the Vietnam War. And he said the US had proven that ‘what we say goes’.

George Bush spoke too soon. Things are looking much shakier for US imperialism just two years into the new world order, as the unravelling of its colonial venture in Somalia showed last month. After the US’s attempt to search out and destroy General Mohamed Farah Aideed resulted in major casualties to US troops on 3 October, the Clinton administration was forced to trade its ‘nation building’ plan for an ‘exit strategy’ – amidst overwhelming popular sentiment for complete withdrawal of US troops from Somalia. The Vietnam Syndrome lives on.

Last December, the US government used the goal of feeding starving Somalis to justify sending troops there, but its actions since then have proven there was never anything humanitarian about the US’s intervention in Somalia. From the beginning, Operation Restore Hope aimed to hand pick Somalia’s next government, which would then owe its existence to US imperialism. And in the initial phase, General Aideed – the wealthy leader of the Habr Gedir clan – was a leading contender for power. Last December, senior US officers forbade their troops from calling Aideed a ‘warlord’. He was a regular visitor to top US diplomats, who escorted him in stately motorcades around Mogadishu.

When the two sides fell out during the Spring, all that changed. After accusing Aideed of ambushing Pakistani UN soldiers in June Admiral Jonathan Howe, the UN envoy in Mogadishu, issued wanted posters of Aideed, offering a $25,000 cash reward for his capture. Meanwhile, the US shaped its military strategy around stalking Aideed – killing hundreds of Somalis in the process. In August, the Clinton administration dispatched a team of 400 US Army Rangers and Delta Force commandoes to hunt down Aideed. For the next six weeks, the elite team of trained sharp shooters staged a series of unsuccessful attempts to locate and capture Aideed, while he continued to issue radio broadcasts and grant interviews to the press.

According to the human rights group African Rights, UN troops have routinely terrorised Somali civilians and repeatedly engaged in systematic torture. Somalis were not the first to drag the mutilated corpses of their enemies through the streets. Last July, Belgian UN troops dragged the body of a Somali strapped to the back of a military vehicle through the town of Kismayu and hitched the body of another to a tank. On another occasion, the Belgian troops reportedly drove field workers away with machinegun fire and then stole an entire crop of melons.

In several incidents in June and July, US and UN troops fired into crowds of Somali women and children, killing dozens. In September, US and Pakistani UN troops massacred more than 100 Somalis – most of them unarmed, many of them women and children. African Rights estimates that the actual number of Somalis killed by UN troops stands at four or five times the official UN figure.

Neither Bill Clinton nor officials in charge of the Somali operation have uttered a word of regret or apology after any of the attacks against Somalis. After a Somali woman lost both her legs when US soldiers blew open a wall to enter a hospital, Major David Stockwell, the chief UN spokesman in Mogadishu, blamed the woman because she ignored a loud speaker warning to leave the hospital. After the home of the UN relief workers was raided mistakenly, Stockwell insisted, ‘We are absolutely not embarrassed. We will not apologise for it.’

Even after the massacres of unarmed women and children, the US took no responsibility – pointing the finger instead at Aideed.

Since the summer, millions of people who once supported US troops in Somalia have changed their minds. A New York Times editorial, for example, argued after the massacre of 100 Somalis, ‘If this mission can’t be directed from warmaking back to peacemaking ... US forces should be withdrawn.’

This opinion has found an echo in Congress. Senator Joe McCain of Arizona has argued, ‘We went to Somalia to keep people from starving to death. Now we are killing women and children because they are combatants.’

Sentiment has shifted markedly in the US, particularly after more than a dozen US soldiers were killed on 3 October. According to a 4 October CNN opinion poll, 52 percent of respondents said that the US should never have sent troops to Somalia to begin with; 57 percent believed no more troops should be sent. On 7 October, a CNN poll showed 60 percent opposed to the continued presence of US troops in Somalia.

The Clinton administration now faces a dilemma. It has embarked on a military adventure which has become extremely unpopular. But Clinton is anxious to avoid the humiliation that an immediate withdrawal would mean for US imperialism. As a Wall Street Journal editorial argued, ‘For the United States to cut and run from Aideed’s thugs and Mogadishu’s street mobs is unthinkable; it would make a hash of US leadership in future brushfires.’

And the dilemma for US imperialism has only added to the rift between the US and the United Nations that erupted over intervention in Bosnia – in which the US has insisted it will only intervene under NATO command. In the aftermath of the 3 October crisis, Clinton stated emphatically, ‘The United States – not the United Nations – will take appropriate action.’

So despite the pressure to scale down the intervention, Clinton quadrupled the number of US troops – to 20,000, including the troops stationed offshore – leading to obvious comparisons with the Vietnam War build up three decades ago. And although some in the ruling class have begun calling for an orderly withdrawal from Somalia, they also share Clinton’s desire to bolster US imperialism. Therefore most have banded behind Clinton’s plan to wait until March in the hopes of an ‘honourable withdrawal’. But as the New York Times pointed out, ‘That was what Johnson and Richard M. Nixon sought, too, and they never did get it.’

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