Somalia and US Non-Interventionism

Does the ongoing debate about American military support for Somalia’s government signal a small but significant step toward non-interventionism among US elites?

Isolationist sentiment in America hit a new high in 2009, according to Pew (h/t Preeti Aroon): “For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should ‘mind its own business internationally’ and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

Interventionism often seems like the dominant foreign policy orientation among American elites, from the center-left to the neocons to much of the right. Whether it’s bipartisan support for the war in Afghanistan (and for a long time, bipartisan support for the war in Iraq), or Democrats and Republicans threatening military action in Iran, or a more general outlook that nearly any crisis abroad can and should evoke political and military intervention by the United States, interventionism often acts as a default – even a hegemonic – political stance.

Growing isolationist sentiment at the popular level, though, may be finding an echo in elite foreign policy debates. In the summer of 2009, with the American right demanding “action” in Iran during its “Green Revolution,” President Obama initially refused to intervene with more than expressions of concern. That decision provoked outcry in some quarters, but received support and approval in others.

Now, as the US-funded Transitional Federal Government of Somalia prepares for an assault on the Islamist rebel group al Shabab, another crisis for US foreign policy has appeared. Reports of US military involvement in the TFG’s campaign elicited a response from Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, who said, “The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives. Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia.”

Before and after Carson’s statement, however, a substantial debate emerged about US military policy in Somalia and Africa more broadly. This debate has real potential to shake up assumptions about America’s role in the post-9/11 world.

A surprisingly broad range of voices, from anti-war activists to Dan Simpson, a former ambassador to Somalia, to an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, are arguing from a non-interventionist perspective. Non-interventionism isn’t necessarily isolationism, but it does question the premise that intervention represents the best policy.

Ambassador Simpson lays out his perspective starkly:

When I left the issue in 1995 I was persuaded that the best thing for Somalia — and therefore for America and the rest of the world — was to leave the Somalis to sort out their problems. Given what has happened since, and what is likely to happen now with the new U.S. military effort, I still think so. Why not let the Shabab take the place and then do business with them?

Bronwyn Bruton of CFR offers a similar perspective in her report Somalia: A New Approach:

Bruton advances a strategy of “constructive disengagement.” Notably, this calls for the United States to signal that it will accept an Islamist authority in Somalia—including the Shabaab—as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from both regional aggression and support for international jihad. As regards terrorism, the report recommends continued airstrikes to target al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists while taking care to minimize civilian casualties.

Bruton may support airstrikes, but the language of “constructive disengagement,” like Simpson’s talk of leaving “the Somalis to solve their own problems,” sounds almost radical in a policy environment where the question policymakers so often ask is, “How should we intervene?” and not “Should we intervene?”

With a plurality of Americans tilting toward isolationism, and examples of failed American interventions staring us in the face, more American elites may embrace non-interventionism. In a way, this is nothing new: isolationism has a long history in the United States, and isolationist arguments helped propel America’s exit from Somalia in the 1990s. But since September 11th and the launch of the Global War on Terror (and, arguably, since World War II), the dominant perspective in foreign policy has argued that America must act abroad to stay safe at home. If elites are recommending “constructive disengagement,” even in a zone where Al Qaeda affiliates stand to take over a stateless nation, that could signal that the interventionist dominance is cracking.

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