In November, to the world's astonishment, 600,000 tired and hungry Hutus emerged from the Zairian countryside and trekked back to Rwanda after a two-year exile. The migration aborted the deployment of a 15,000-strong international force about to embark for Rwanda to rescue these very refugees. Yet this deployment, though canceled, achieved its mission. According to some reports, news of the troops' imminent arrival may have weakened the morale of the Hutu militia who had held the refugees hostage and emboldened the refugees to defy the militia and take their chances on returning home.
Zaire marked an important shift in American and Western attitudes toward humanitarian military missions. Only four months earlier, a coup in Burundi that threatened to touch off another spasm of genocide inspired mainly hand-wringing. This time, when an outbreak of fighting imperiled the million or so refugees, France, Germany, and Spain clamored for action. The Clinton Administration resisted at first, but went along after Canada volunteered to lead the force--an idea that Washington may have planted with Ottawa.
The Somalia Syndrome
This willingness once again to consider brief interventions in third-world trouble spots is welcome evidence that the United States is beginning to recover from its "Somalia syndrome," the legacy of the chilling fire fight in Mogadishu in October 1993 when 18 Army Rangers were cut down and the corpse of one was dragged though the streets by a jeering mob of the very Somalis the soldiers had come to rescue.
Just as defeats in Vietnam convinced Americans that we did not understand the difficulties of waging the cold war in distant third-world venues, so the debacle in Mogadishu soured us on getting involved in faraway crises where America's own security is not in danger. Paralyzed by doubts about the moral justification and the practical effectiveness of such interventions, America sat on its hands in 1994 when some half-million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were hacked, bludgeoned, and shot to death.
The real lesson of the Somali mission is not to avoid such interventions but to limit them to circumscribed, humanitarian goals. A person who suffers a grievous wound may bleed to death in minutes, but if given a tourniquet, may eventually make a full recovery. The same can be true for the emergencies that beset nations. Relief from natural disasters has saved untold lives. Relief from political disasters can work, too.
What impelled the American intervention in Somalia was no mere "CNN effect"--as cynics describe the impact of suffering transmitted over the nightly news. It was a genuine calamity. According to the International Red Cross, famine had already claimed the lives of some 300,000 Somalis. The United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance reported that 25 percent of the children under age 5 in the vast southern portion of the country had already succumbed. Another million and a half Somalis were deemed in imminent jeopardy. Largely as a result of "Operation Restore Hope," most of those people survived. Within three months of the Americans' arrival, deaths from starvation had virtually ceased. America had applied a tourniquet, and the bleeding had stopped.
The Somalia mission came to grief in the transition from a mostly American emergency operation to a United Nations peace-keeping force with a smaller American component. The United Nations force was saddled by the Security Council with an objective of "nation building" that was far beyond its means. Had Washington avoided being drawn into this Sisyphean task, the Rangers would not have been hunting Somalian warlords in the back alleys of Mogadishu, and the United States would most likely have accomplished its rescue mission without so sad a sacrifice.
The project of nation-building was abandoned after the Rangers' debacle. American forces were hastily withdrawn, and those of other nations soon followed. Although Somalia lacks a functioning national Government, crops are being planted and harvested. The terrible famine of 1992 arose from a confluence of human and natural causes that has not recurred. Somalia is still a failed state, but people eat, and mass death has not returned. In that vital sense America's accomplishment endures.
Somalia isn't the only example of how a political tourniquet can save a country from the abyss. In 1965, for example, American forces invaded the Dominican Republic to put down a military insurrection supporting the elected president, Juan Bosch. The United States soon organized a new election that was won by a conservative, Joaqu'n Balaguer. Although the Dominican Republic remains a country with many problems, it has enjoyed elective governments ever since. In 1978, when Bosch's party finally bested the conservatives, the military considered interfering but was dissuaded by sharp warnings from Washington. Power has continued to be transferred peacefully, including this year, when the 90-year-old Balaguer yielded to the reformist Leonel Fernandez Reyna.
The invasion of Grenada in 1983 restored democracy to that tiny island and, although the Americans soon left, democracy has endured. The invasion of Panama ordered by President Bush in 1989 succeeded in restoring elected government--as did the invasion of Haiti by President Clinton in 1994. Granted, the book remains open on the restoration of civil norms to Haiti. But building on the harsh lessons of Somalia, the White House orchestrated a much smoother transfer of authority to United Nations forces.
There remain ample grounds for debating the justification for these interventions. But there is less room to question their efficacy in achieving a substantial and beneficial result in a short amount of time.
It is not only the United States that has demonstrated this point. In 1979, France sent its troops to the Central African Empire to topple the self-crowned emperor, Bokassa I, after he ordered his troops to shoot schoolchildren who had refused to purchase uniforms from the Bokassa family clothing business. That same year, the Government of Tanzania, on the pretext of border skirmishes, sent its troops into Uganda to end the butcherly rule of the megalomaniac Idi Amin. In neither of these cases did lasting democracy ensue, but the mostly unelected Governments that have ruled since have done their people much less harm than did Bokassa and Amin.
A lesson of this history might have been missed by the Bush Administration during the gulf war. President Turgut Ozal of Turkey, now deceased, once said that top American officials rejected his advice to capture Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein on the grounds that Iraq could not sustain democracy. Yet how much less ready for democracy was Iraq than, say, the Dominican Republic? And even if democracy had given way to a run-of-the-mill dictator, like those who followed Bokassa and Amin, would that not have been far preferable to the continued reign of Saddam Hussein?
Against the examples of interventions that have worked out relatively well must be weighed the contrary examples of ones that have ended painfully: not just Vietnam, but more germanely Somalia and Lebanon, where 241 Marines were killed in 1983 by a terrorist blast as they slept. These experiences also have their lessons. In Somalia, the mission grew more open-ended and was vague even as the number of forces was reduced to 4,000 logistical personnel and roughly 1,500 combat troops. In Lebanon, the Marines numbered only about 1,600 and their goal was no more specific than to be a presence. The lesson is not only that deployments should have clear objectives but also that forces sent into danger should be sent in numbers large enough to minimize the risk. They ought to be intimidating to those who resent their presence.
The cautionary implications in this for Bosnia are clear: if continuing instability requires that American forces remain, then it is a mistake to reduce their number. Because our deployment in Bosnia is based more on interest than on humanitarian grounds, we are in less hurry to withdraw. However, where the stakes are more humanitarian than strategic, interventions will necessarily be brief and reserved for dire cases.
Clearly, however, relief from political disasters can work. Famine did not return to Somalia because the mix of political and natural circumstances changed. The Hutu refugees left Zaire because of a sudden modest shift in the balance of power and expectations. Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa, and Grenada's New Jewel Movement were hard to unseat from within because they monopolized the means of coercion. Once toppled, they stood little chance of getting back on top. Because of our hunger for explanation and understanding, we readily slip into the fallacy of assuming that political events necessarily reflect powerful underlying causes. But many political situations are contingent or coincidental and therefore susceptible to sudden change.
To do something does not mean doing everything. Stopping genocide or mass death from starvation or disease does not mean putting everything right. Nor must all the responsibility fall to Washington. In the aborted mission to Zaire, the Clinton Administration properly wanted Canada to lead. Just a month earlier, Secretary of State Warren Christopher toured Africa trying to drum up support for a crisis response force made up of troops from many African states, with America furnishing much of the training, equipment, and financing. In Bosnia, where issues of global peace and security are in play, Washington has to take the lead. But where the issues are wholly humanitarian, it does not derogate from America's superpower status to let others take charge. If they will.
But if they will not, and if the United States again confronts a genocide or a catastrophe of like proportion, we should not be paralyzed by a Somalia syndrome, based on poorly digested lessons. We cannot rescue "failed states," but if we can rescue a million lives here and there, isn't that worth doing?
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.