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The Trouble with Good Intentions: In Feeding Somalia and Backing Yeltsin, America Discovers the Limits of Idealism .

5 minute read
Lance Morrow

Complexity theory holds that even the wildest disorder may eventually cohere into a pattern — as when the teeming molecules of the young earth united in the arrangement that became life.

If complexity theory is valid, there may be hope someday for Somalia. There may even be hope for the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy.

It is wrong to expect too much coherence from any quarter, writers on foreign policy warn: with the end of the cold war, the world is formless — no | longer Manichaean, no longer organized around two neat poles of ideology. America’s conception of its national interests and its moral role abroad, to say nothing of its idea of itself at home, is disheveled. It is therefore natural that in trying to find its way through problems like, say, Bosnia and Somalia, the Administration can see no farther than the range of its low-beam headlights.

Maybe so. But it is misleading to blame the diversity of the new world for the confusion in Somalia. The chaos has been there a long time. And it is also a very old story when the most wholesome moral intentions (such as the American desire to feed starving Somali children) lead down a road into nightmares of entanglement and unintended consequences. The best, brightest American policy thinking went off a cliff in Vietnam, for example.

The Clinton Administration has tried to do good by helping Boris Yeltsin. But by supporting him so unreservedly, the U.S. risks collaborating in the creation of a democratic authoritarianism. It is impossible to accomplish moral and political fine-tuning amid turmoil. American policy toward Haiti, a place almost as poignantly miserable as Somalia, is also smudged by uncertainty just at the moment when the Administration is sending military trainers and engineers to join a U.N. force.

The aid effort in Somalia displays an attractive American tendency: the impulse to construct idealistic policy out of generous feelings. The danger is that such international idealism may be shallow and short-lived, a sort of sentimentality of the privileged.

These feelings-behind-policy, this Great Power subjectivism, often arises spontaneously from pictures, either still photographs or television clips, that are mainlined directly into the democracy’s emotional bloodstream without the mediation of conscious thought. America got into Somalia because it felt a sane and generous outrage at the spectacle of thousands of children and other innocent people starving while gangs of thugs stole the food from their bowls. Now the majority of Americans want to withdraw from Somalia because they have felt a converse outrage at pictures of an American soldier’s body gruesomely dragged through the dust, and of grinning Somalis dancing on the corpse of a helicopter.

In both instances, the feelings aroused by the pictures have their passion and validity — as feelings. But not as solid thoughts on which to form American policy when that policy may put American lives, and many others, at ( risk.

The eye, fastened to CNN, makes a valuable witness. But it has a tendency to stir people to bursts of indignation that flare briefly, spectacularly and ineffectually, like a fire splashed with a cup of gasoline.

An advertent and sustained foreign policy uses a different part of the brain from the one engaged by horrifying images. If Americans had seen the battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor on TV screens in 1864, if they had witnessed the meat-grinding carnage of Ulysses Grant’s warmaking, then public opinion would have demanded an end to the Civil War, and the Union might well have split into two countries, one of them farmed by black slaves.

It is obviously futile to march Americans into the midst of long-standing Somali blood feuds. To do so creates an explosive dynamic in which the Americans are the new villains and targets: more Americans die, more Somali civilians die as Americans grow frustrated and retaliate with bigger gunships, hatreds grow deeper, and the tragedy is compounded.

It is strange how many ghosts hover around Somalia. There is, of course, the big dark ghost of Vietnam, that formative evil myth of Clinton’s generation. That war, like the Somalia conflict, was dominated by images injected into the American psyche — the Viet Cong in a plaid shirt being shot in the head point-blank by Saigon’s police chief during the Tet offensive, for example. The experience of Vietnam issues its warnings (“quagmire” and so on), but strangely, Bill Clinton the old war resister last week used much the same rhetoric of steadfastness and honor that Lyndon Johnson used when explaining another escalation in Vietnam.

The Americans have ventured into Somalia in a sort of surreal confusion, first impersonating Mother Teresa and now John Wayne. It would help to clarify that self-image, for to do so would clarify the mission, and then to recast the rhetoric of the enterprise.

Above all to simplify. To say, We came here to feed starving people. With its bloodshed and starvation, Somalia has been a tragedy. But there are many tragedies in the world. The U.S. will help the U.N. peacekeepers as it can, but the U.S. will not allow itself to become another fighter-killer among factions in the streets and alleys of Mogadishu. Americans have better things to do, in places where they can help.

American policy does not need more feelings. It needs, as George Meredith said, “More brain, O Lord!”

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