Tuesday, June 20, 2006

US Foreign Policy: From Anything Is Better Than Communist, To Anything Is Better Than Islamic

Brian Tamanaha

The recent military victory by Islamic militiamen in Mogadishu over Somali warlords reportedly "caught Washington and the world by surprise." A report by Marc Lacey in the New York Times yesterday offers the following appraisal of the uncertain situation in the aftermath of the victory:

With the old warlords gone, Mogadishu is safer, and more dangerous, too. It is a happier place, and a more oppressive one. It is a capital city that is also a rundown shantytown, churning with change....

In the old Mogadishu, militiamen would barge into a home and haul a girl or woman away and rape her. Bullets rang out routinely, and gunmen set up roadblocks and charged taxes on anybody who happened by.

Fewer guns are visible now. The man-made roadblocks have disappeared, leaving livestock and huge craters as the main obstructions to navigation. But a new, more silent battle us under way, for control of the Islamic movement in Somalia.

By all accounts, the situation in Mogadishu under the warlords was terrible for the people of the city: more than a decade of unrelenting insecurity, violence and pockets of anarchy. One would think, therefore, that we would rejoice in the victory of Islamic forces.

It is thus surprising to learn, as documented in this report, that the US government provided financial and other forms of support to the warlords against the Islamic forces, over the opposition of officials in the UN and the government of Somalia. Some of this support went to the very same warlords who attacked US and UN troops in Mogadishu in the 1990s. Our apparent reason for supporting the warlords is the fear that an Islamic-run city will provide a haven for terrorists (notwithstanding explicit denials of this by the Islamic forces involved in the takeover).

So let's get this straight: our government supported warlords--who created anarchy and brutalized their own people--owing to the fear that an Islamic takeover--which would bring peace to the city--might provide a training ground for terrorists. Granted, it is not yet clear what shape the Islamic-run city will take, but it is absolutely clear that the previous situation was horrendous and intolerable for its people.

Never mind the dubious morality of choosing to sacrifice the lives of the residents of Mogadishu in this manner for our own speculative, distant benefit; never mind the dubious morality of providing support for warlords who killed our troops a decade ago. Moral considerations such as these apparently don't carry much weight with the realpolitik crowd.

Let's instead ask a realpolitik question. In the long run, what has the greater potential to facilitate terrorism: a generation of ruined and hopeless lives, and a city of perpetual disorder and insecurity, or a peaceful Islamic society?

Our government's policy in this matter brings to mind the old cold war days, when we formed alliances with right-wing dictators in the belief that they were preferable to socialist or communist governments. The cost of that policy, in terms of lives lost and damage to the reputation of the US, is still being tallied. Is the current view of our government that anything (even anarchy) is better than an Islamic government?


Professor Tamanaha,

With all due respect, your "realpolitick" question undercuts your argument and identifies your fatal flaw - that the US had a choice between a "good" and "bad option."

Foreign policy is almost entirely about choosing between the bad and worse. The end of your question contains, "...or a peaceful Islamic society?" Very false choice...

I am no expert on Somalia, so I must acknowledge my general ignorance. But, Somalia could very well turn into another Afghanistan. If I remember correctly, the Taliban were seen as the "heroes" - they came in establishing order and building schools, however their radical elements only came to the forefront once they had entrenched themselves. We all know what happened afterwards.

This is not to say that Somalia under this Islamic leadership will go the way of the Taliban, but it is at least a distinct possibility.

Further, to take on your analogy to the Cold War, despite the many errors committed by the United States recent scholarship has shown that "overall" our strategy did pay off. Countries in which Communist leaders did take over (even if democractically elected and popular) quickly devolved into chaos, corruption, political oppression and more often than not mass murder. It is easy to point to the US to blame her for the failings in Latin and South American for example. But, the ENTIRE history of Communism in every state in which it held power resulted in the aggregate of the deaths of untold millions. Arguably, our efforts during the Cold War and the regimes we supported, while responsible for deaths of their own, were far better than the alternatives. Once against, please don't make the false assumption that somehow, someway, if we had just left them alone, nothing bad would have happened. While a theoretical possibility, history and logic compel a different conclusion.

For a different example, I recommend Paul Johnson's Modern Times. In it he chronicles how very easily the west could have destroyed Lenin right as he was consolidating his power in Russia. A few Westerners actually toyed with the idea. Churchill himself at that time foresaw the brutalality of the regime coming to power. But was unwilling to do anything about it. For better or worse, it was "a Russian matter."

After all, hadn't the czar been a brutal authoritarian? Well yes he had, but as it turned out he was nothing compared to Lenin and later Stalin. Such is history.

thank you once again Professor Tamanaha. There are very few writers available to us on International Relations in the United States who can connect the dots as well as you do.

Given that, even if it is somewhat of an inevitable feature of foreign policy, we are still essentially following the real-politick principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" no matter how dispicable the "friend" in question may be and how likely that "friend" is to turn on us later (and we are not just doing this in Somalia, consider our policies toward the repressive former Soviet Republics in Central Asia), what is the difference between "realist" foreign policy and the so-called (inaccurately so-called) "Wilsonian"/"T. Rooseveltian" foreign policy of the neo-conservatives?

This is not just an important practical question, but a political one as well. Whenever those of us liberals, who do support a foreign policy that could fairly be described as "Wilsonian" or even "T. Rooseveltian", criticize neo-con foreign policy adventures, we are tarred and feathered with the leading question: "well what do you propose we do, go back to the sort of foreign policy 'realism' that led to 9/11?". This rhetorical attack hides the reality of neo-con foreign policy being a new gloss on the same realism which they posit we liberals have adopted and which they claim to criticize.

It is a shame that more people in positions of public exposure are not calling our "new-fangled" Bush admin foreign policy for what it is -- more of the same tired old un-realistic realism that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead they let the neo-conservatives play "bait and switch" between their language and actions and allow the rest of us to be tarred with the foreign policy label of sin that should be applied to the neo-cons themselves. I wish more people actually thought seriously about our foreign policy and saw through the rhetoric that obfuscates the reality of how those currently in charge of our foreign policy really learned nothing from 9/11 even as they use 9/11 to justify everything they do and claim that those of us who oppose them have learned nothing from 9/11, which is only true to the extent that we realized the flaws in "realist" foreign policy long before 9/11 anyway.


Good Comment. However, I have a quibble. I could have sworn that the 2002 NSS was more concerned with terrorists and state sponsors of terrorists. Granted, this doesn't provide any more argument in favor of the invasion of Iraq, but I think your emphasis on the "imminence of the threat" is misplaced.

(Of course, I could be remembering incorrectly).

Oh, one other point. I've always understood the preemption doctrine to entail more than just "imminent threats."

The argument is that in the age of WMD and missiles, etc. waiting until the threat is imminent may well be too late. Action must be taken to preempt such threats before they become imminent, hence, the invasion of Iraq.

Once again, I may have misunderstood...

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