When news reports described the events in Somalia that year, 1993, it was as “the deadliest firefight U.S. forces had faced since Vietnam.” Eighteen American dead, 73 injured.
In the days afterward, President Bill Clinton addressed the nation about these events. Here is part of what he said:
These tragic events raise hard questions about our effort in Somalia. Why are we still there? What are we trying to accomplish? How did a humanitarian mission turn violent? And when will our people come home? These questions deserve straight answers. Let’s start by remembering why our troops went into Somalia in the first place.
We went because only the United States could help stop one of the great human tragedies of this time. A third of a million people had died of starvation and disease. Twice that many more were at risk of dying. Meanwhile, tons of relief supplies piled up in the capital of Mogadishu because a small number of Somalis stopped food from reaching their own countrymen. Our consciences said “Enough.”
There’s much to be said about the above. It strikes a solemn tone, as if accountability is finally coming. It is also nonsense from end to end. The first-person plural, “we,” is used throughout. Notice that Clinton said we have to remember why our troops went to Somalia in the first place. Shortly thereafter he says that we went because our consciences said, “Enough.” If our consciences said this, how was it that we didn’t know why we were there or what we were doing? Americans tend to remember their good intentions, even when they’ve forgotten everything else. Maybe Clinton understood that.
But what stands out most of all to me is the way Clinton says that the tragic events — the deaths of our men — raise hard questions such as “What are we trying to accomplish?” How is this a hard question? Perhaps that’s something to answer before exposing the U.S. military to “tragic events.”
Another October, even further back, there were other tragic events. Some 1,800 U.S. Marines joined French, Italian, and British troops in Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission authorized by the United Nations. The American Congress did not debate it. But over time the mission changed and evolved. Suddenly, to the objective of keeping peace Ronald Reagan was adding more, promising that we would “facilitate the restoration of the sovereignty and authority of the Lebanese government over the Beirut area.”
Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty was in command of the Marines. He would later write of that year’s tragic events that this attempt to facilitate the sovereignty of the Lebanese government changed our involvement irrevocably. “It is noteworthy that the United States provided direct naval gunfire support — which I strongly opposed for a week — to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on 19 September and that the French conducted an air strike on 23 September in the Bekaa Valley,” he wrote. “American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision.” And we did. The news reports at the time noted that bombing of the Marine barracks was the deadliest day for U.S. Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Last year Mike Pence called the Beirut bombing “the opening salvo” in a war that we have waged ever since — “the global war on terror.” I suppose this is proof that the 2001 authorization of military force, and its flexible understanding of war, extends not only endlessly into the future but also mysteriously into the past. Soon we will be told that the administration of Thomas Jefferson was also prosecuting the global war on terror in Tunis and Tripoli.
When I was younger and much less cynical, I thought that the United States might have learned a lesson from Mogadishu. It seemed as if Clinton was paying a serious political price for having troops in a war theater without really explaining the conflict. He seemed to be in trouble even though he had inherited the intervention from George H. W. Bush. Instead of learning that we ought to return to the constitutional notion of Congress authorizing war on behalf of the people, we got something else. Our presidents got a sense that they could deploy Special Forces and American air power just about anywhere, for just about any reason, without any input from Congress or any debate.
And as things stands today, we have half a dozen potential Beiruts and Mogadishu. It’s hard to keep up with them all.
In fact, Mogadishu is one of them; we have men in Somalia fighting al-Shabab. Green Berets are killing and dying in Niger. In 2016, reports about Special Forces deployed in Libya inadvertantly gave a sense of how the U.S. government treats public opinion. “U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a mission that has not been announced publicly,” one said. Have a problem with an unauthorized war conducted without debate? Forward your complaint to the nearest wastepaper basket. Anonymous officials leaked the existence of the mission to the press, why would you want more than that?
Have a problem with an unauthorized war conducted without debate? Forward your complaint to the nearest wastepaper basket.
In Yemen, we have men in the air, and boots on the ground, advising the Saudis on how to use all the weapons they buy from us to install their preferred puppet in Sanaa. Our military refuels Saudi planes, and gives them targeting information and intelligence. The Saudis have bombed and blockaded Yemen, leading to one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern history and a massive food shortage.
U.S. troops last year started to take part in war exercises in Ukraine — not a NATO ally, and one subject to tumultuous political volatility. And U.S. troops, having claimed victory over ISIS in Syria, remain in that country, finding new things to target. If current reports are to be trusted, U.S. forces killed scores, perhaps hundreds of Russian nationals who were serving as mercenaries for the Assad regime in Damascus. Is no one worried that miscalculation in this ever-more-complex civil war could lead to more-direct great-power conflict?
None of this has been debated in Congress. If any of it could be said to have authorization, it comes from the assent of the 107th Congress of the United States, which adjourned in 2003. And we haven’t even mentioned the continuing theater of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps, if we considered the risks — to our military personnel, our national honor, and our national security — of maintaining so many men in conflicts without the explicit authorization of Congress and without popular support, our consciences would say, “Enough.”