Commentary Magazine

When, Where & How to Use Force: Beyond Self-Defense

On October 3, a company of Army Rangers, the cream of America’s fighting forces, was decimated in the streets of Mogadishu by what had been thought of as a ragtag group of thugs. When word reached home, a cry arose in Congress for withdrawal from Somalia. President Bill Clinton, forced to rely on help from the unlikely quarter of Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, managed to get a six-month grace period for the extraction of American forces. But any plans previously contemplated by the administration for sending American troops to Haiti (to help reinstate the ousted President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide) or to Bosnia (to police a negotiated partition) were thrown into doubt.

Why did a mission that began so gloriously last December end in such ignominious retreat? And what lessons does it teach about sending American forces abroad in the post-cold-war world?



President George Bush’s decision last November to dispatch an American division to help the UN pacify Somalia, so that relief might be brought to its starving inhabitants, came as a surprise. The hot debate in foreign policy at that moment was over intervention in Bosnia; virtually no one advocated going into Somalia. No less surprising were the reports that the then-Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, and the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, both known for setting high thresholds for the use of force abroad, had strongly endorsed the Somalia mission.

Perhaps the President wanted to end his term with a heroic bow on the world stage. Perhaps all three men—who were united in their opposition to American action in Bosnia—wanted to demonstrate effectiveness on another front. Perhaps they welcomed the opportunity to cast the much-maligned U.S. military in the role of hero to Africans and Muslims abroad, and to blacks and liberals at home. Perhaps the motive was just what they said it was: purely humanitarian.

In any event, Somalia was easy—or so it seemed. Bush’s decision, said the Washington Post, arose from “a growing conviction that many thousands more people would starve to death within weeks in the absence of strong action,” and from “a Pentagon calculation that the military risks would be minimal.” At home, things certainly seemed easy, as Bush’s initiative was widely hailed by members of both parties and (according to a Gallup poll) by 74 percent of the American public.

In Somalia, too, the American military deployment was well received. “Jubilant Somalis” watched U.S. Marines take up positions around Mogadishu, reported the Post, and they “cheered as the American helicopters crisscrossed the city sky.” Somali warlords—the main instigators of the famine—rushed to embrace the arriving Americans, with Mohammed Farah Aidid, who had thwarted all previous UN relief efforts, leading the pack.

Back home, only a few skeptical voices made themselves heard, the most sonorous being that of Smith Hempstone, ambassador to Kenya, whose cabled alarum leaked into the newspapers. It will “be far easier to go in than get out,” he warned. Bush responded to such warnings by emphasizing the narrow goal of the mission. His spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, declared: “We want to make it clear that this UN force would be designed to get humanitarian supplies in, not to establish a new government or resolve the decades-long conflict there or to set up a protectorate or anything like that.”

Fitzwater’s reference to a “protectorate” may have been inspired by news reports that UN officials had talked among themselves about the idea of a trusteeship to end Somalia’s murderous anarchy. This idea was soon dropped because its echoes of colonialism were anathema to various third-world governments. Even so, Security Council President André Erdös said that the UN might go so far as to assume the task of restoring “some kind of normalcy” to Somalia.

UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali also called on the American forces to disarm Somali factions, clear mines, train a police force, and restore order. But the Bush administration was not prepared for anything like such a role. The farthest it was willing to venture into internal Somali affairs was to encourage talks among various local leaders toward a political settlement.

All such efforts foundered, however, on the shoal of Mohammed Farah Aidid. Virtually from the moment the former Somali dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, fell in 1991, Aidid (unlike other factional leaders) had opposed UN intervention to mediate conflict or provide relief. As the head of the strongest armed faction, Aidid aimed to rule Somalia. His adversaries had proved strong enough to deny him that goal—the essence of much of the warfare in Somalia—but neither could a settlement be reached without his cooperation.

While efforts toward such a settlement were unavailing, the feeding program was a huge success. Under the military umbrella, food flowed into the areas hard hit by famine. As one journalist, Jonathan Stevenson, wrote in Foreign Policy:

By the end of December, the number of malnourished children under five in Mogadishu had returned to a near-normal 10 percent, compared to the more than 60 percent five months before. . . . The UN Food and Agricultural Organization is predicting 70 percent of normal agricultural production this year. The once-barren streets of Mogadishu are now packed, three stalls deep, with meat, grain, and bread sellers.

By the beginning of March, Robert Oakley, America’s chief representative in Somalia, could report that “deaths from starvation are almost gone now.”



When the Bush administration first announced its plans for Somalia, its spokesmen said that it intended to bring the troops back by the time of Clinton’s inauguration (at which point they would be replaced by other forces under UN command). But since this was only six or seven weeks off, no one took the pledge very seriously. A few hundred soldiers were sent home by the deadline in a symbolic gesture of good faith, but on January 20, Clinton inherited the Somalia mission, and his administration seemed in no rush to end it.

Without that urgency, the United States fell in behind Secretary General Boutros-Ghali, who had a more ambitious agenda not only for Somalia, but for the UN itself, of which Somalia became a kind of test case. As he explained in an article in Foreign Affairs, the end of the cold war presented “an extraordinary opportunity to expand, adapt, and reinvigorate the work of the United Nations.” Boutros-Ghali wanted the UN to go “beyond peacekeeping” to “peace enforcement” and other new activities, “some of them very intrusive.” Some months later, when the Somalia mission began to falter, Under Secretary General for Political Affairs James O.C. Jonah said: “If we fail in Somalia, the repercussions will be devastating. It would show that the UN cannot sustain an operation, and that is why we want to see this effort succeed in Somalia.”

Hence Boutros-Ghali and his staff moved slowly on replacing the American troops in Somalia and pressed to retain a large American contingent in the blue-helmeted UN force that began taking over in May. Boutros-Ghali wanted 8,000 Americans—half of the 16,000 who were still there—to remain on, under his command. In a bargain, he settled for 4,000 in exchange for U.S. support of a Security Council resolution that expanded the mission in Somalia to include “reestablishment of national and regional institutions and civil administration in the entire country.”

In embracing this new mission, the State Department’s coordinator for Somalia, David Shinn, explained that UN forces “basically are recreating a country. This has never been done before in the history of the world, at least the modern world.” In August, when the death of four Americans shook American resolve on Somalia, Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, exhorted her countrymen to “stay the course and help lift the country and its people from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy.” And White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers declared: “We went in there with a clear vision of humanitarian relief and nation-building. They’re still in that process.”

Since October’s debacle, the Clinton administration has pointed many accusatory fingers at the UN, and there is no doubt that Boutros-Ghali and company pulled America deeper into Somalia than it likely would have gone on its own. But Boutros-Ghali got his way because the Clinton administration had a weakness for what he was seeking to do.

Thus, in his September address to the UN General Assembly, Clinton proclaimed that “UN peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve many of this era’s conflicts.” Then, in a subsequent interview with the Washington Post, he expanded on this point:

. . . There is a sense that we paid the price to win the cold war and paid the price to shoulder the burden of other countries and we ought to look inward now. . . .

We have to resist it as we build a consensus for what our role in the world will be and how we will define it and how we will work with the United Nations and how we will develop the peacekeeping capacity of the United Nations, how we will define our interests.

He concluded the interview by reprising his pre-inaugural promise to “focus like a laser” on the domestic economy. “We’ve simply got to focus on rebuilding America.”

Clinton, in other words, did not want America to turn its back on the world, but neither did he want to ask it to pay many prices or bear many burdens. Indeed, when the administration embraced “assertive multilateralism” as one of the pillars of its foreign policy, it apparently thought it had discovered a kind of poor man’s internationalism. As the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland observed: “Keeping the United Nations as a credible alternative to a Pax Americana is as important for Clinton’s Office of Budget and Management as it is for the State Department.”

Multilateralism was not only a poor man’s internationalism; it was also, one might say, an isolationist’s internationalism. Many liberals, like Clinton’s old mentor, former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, and many of those who made up Clinton’s foreign-policy team, had long faced a dilemma. They welcomed international action but not the exertion of American power, which they believed, as Fulbright once so famously put it, was a great breeder of “arrogance.” Far better for America to act multilaterally.

This sentiment was well captured in an essay by Robert Hunter, whom Clinton soon appointed ambassador to NATO. Hunter heralded the Somalia deployment because, in addition to its intrinsic merits, it “helps the United States to adjust to the post-cold-war world and to new methods of meeting likely challenges. . . . [W]e must be prepared to take part [in UN actions even] when we are less concerned. Otherwise, there can be no progress toward broadening the scope of the rule of law.”

As things turned out, however, far from spurring “adjustment” to a new age of multilateralism, Somalia has rekindled old doubts about the UN and swelled the currents of isolationism. The Wall Street Journal reported that in reaction to Somalia and Haiti “Americans are turning inward again—this time, not because they are insulated from the world, but because they know too much about it.”

American isolationism comes in two variants. The older and larger feared that the world would corrupt America. The second variant, which flowered in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s where Clinton cut his teeth, feared that America would corrupt the world.

Today, Clinton is no isolationist, as he has demonstrated by his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the National Endowment for Democracy, and aid for Russia’s democratization. But all these policies are under strong challenge in Congress and from the likes of Ross Perot and Patrick J. Buchanan who are working to revive the old isolationism. To the extent that the Clinton administration betrays a residual distrust of American power or disregard of American self-interest, it will only play into their hands.



America has used force abroad for a large variety of reasons, but all the most important reduce to self-defense. The ghastly experience of World War II drove home the lesson that self-defense is not limited to one’s borders. Had America not turned inward after World War I, had the great democracies not abandoned smaller states to their fate, had they been willing to uphold the terms of the Versailles Treaty, had they not acquiesced in aggression in Manchuria and Abyssinia, they might not have had later to fight for their very lives. We put this hard-won lesson to use in the cold war, employing an outward strategy that paid off handsomely. In the name of “containment” we took the whole globe as our chessboard and did many things far from home whose ultimate rationale was our own self-defense.

In contrast, the kind of humanitarian project that we undertook in Somalia had little if anything to do with self-defense. The initial relief mission unveiled a “Bush Doctrine,” according to Fred Barnes of the New Republic, which applied “to places or crises where the United States has no strategic, political, or economic interest.” The United States might intervene in such situations under four conditions, said Barnes in elucidating the new doctrine: “The problem must be horrendous . . . , the chances of success very high, the costs very low, and force used only as a last resort.”

Patrick Glynn of the American Enterprise Institute has been a persistent critic of the emphasis on “doability” in this calculus. Glynn feels that action in Somalia has been a cover for inaction in Bosnia. Bush and Clinton both opted to use force in Somalia, where we had only humanitarian interests, because it seemed easy, but avoided using it in Bosnia, where Glynn believes (rightly, I think) that we also have security interests, because it seemed difficult.

Glynn draws up a compelling indictment of the calculus motivating Bush and Clinton—security interests, he argues, should be given greater weight than humanitarian interests—but the costs and likely success of a mission are always important considerations, even where the security stakes are large. America refrained from aiding Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, although their independence from the Soviet Union would have meant a lot to us, because the dangers seemed too great; and the best argument against the war in Vietnam was not that Communism would be tolerable in Indochina but that the costs of preventing it were prohibitive.

Such considerations in my judgment become all the more important when the mission is humanitarian. We must be very chary of spending American lives in humanitarian missions, not because American lives are more valuable than others, but because an implicit premise of our national polity is to value ourselves before others and because the burdens are not equally shared among us. The men and women who volunteer for service in our armed forces know that their ultimate job is to kill and risk being killed, but the rest of us owe it to them not to risk their lives lightly.

This is not to say that a humanitarian mission must be cost-free in terms of American life. Those of us who wish that America had bombed the rail lines to Auschwitz must acknowledge that some airmen might have been lost in the effort. And those who wish that something had been done to stop Pol Pot’s mass murder of Cambodians must in theory countenance heavy American casualties. But these two cases, the most frequently-cited examples ripe for humanitarian intervention, suggest that the threshold for expending American lives must be very high.

Did Somalia rise to that threshold? An argument can be made that it did. According to the International Red Cross and other reputable sources, some 300,000 Somalis had died of violence and famine by the time of the U.S. intervention, and another 1.5 million or more stood at risk out of a population estimated at around 6 million. This is a scale of death very similar to the best estimates of Cambodia’s tragedy. At its higher range it even approaches the toll of Auschwitz. To rescue that many foreigners, is it worth losing a small number of Americans? There is no algebra for such questions, but I believe that most Americans, including most in uniform, would answer yes.

What is doubtful, however, is whether “nation-building” in Somalia justifies the expenditure of American lives. America has often worked enormous changes in other countries, and transforming Somalia might not be beyond our capabilities. But surely a large and lengthy involvement would be required to suppress the likes of Aidid and to reconstruct and resocialize Somalia. When Somalia was the world’s worst emergency, it warranted special attention; but if nation-building is the aim, why Somalia rather than dozens of other places?

Admittedly, without a political transformation, Somalia might slide back into civil war and anarchy and renewed famine. On the other hand, the famine of 1991-92 derived from a confluence of human and natural causes that might not recur even in the absence of such a transformation. Or it might be possible to devise methods to protect food distribution that would be less ambitious than nation-building and less hazardous to American troops.



If nation-building was a dubious cause for which to risk American soldiers in Somalia, what about Haiti?

American and UN mediators had, thanks to intense diplomatic and economic pressure, extracted from Haiti’s military rulers an agreement to cede power back to the democratically-elected Aristide, whom they had driven from office. The deal rested in part on the emplacement of some 1,500 UN “blue helmets,” including 600 lightly-armed American “trainers,” who would give confidence to both sides. They were scheduled to arrive in Haiti in mid-October—just on the heels of the Mogadishu disaster. In the congressional clamor for withdrawal from Somalia, Haitian militarists spotted an opportunity to weasel out of their bargain, and they staged a menacing demonstration against the arriving Americans. The Clinton administration pulled back the soldiers and strengthened economic sanctions, insisting that it would not rule out the use of force to reinstate Aristide.

Although Haiti is an impoverished, disease-ridden country, the issue of military action there does not turn on humanitarian concerns but on the question of democracy. Aristide was fairly elected by an overwhelming majority of Haitian voters. Democracy is itself a humanitarian concern—a matter of human rights—but it also has implications for American security. Since democracies are in general more peaceful than dictatorships, and also friendlier to America, the more democracies there are, the safer this country will be. Consequently, the threshold for using force to spread democracy may be somewhat lower than for using it in pursuit of purely humanitarian grounds.

Nor should it be doubted that America is capable of using force effectively on behalf of democracy. When the U.S. invaded Grenada in 1983, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan exclaimed: “I don’t know that you restore democracy at the point of a bayonet.” But that in fact is what we did in Grenada, as we had done in the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s, and, more importantly, in Japan, Germany, and Austria after World War II.

However, in every one of those cases democracy was the outcome of, not the motive for, American intervention, and it is hard to make a case for using force solely or mainly for the purpose of democratization. Democracy is a high value, but so is peace, and international law will not countenance aggression even for the good cause of democratization. Nor would the American people welcome such a burden. The promotion of democracy is an important American goal best pursued by peaceful means.

The question becomes more complicated where a democratically-elected government has been ousted by force, or blocked from office, or where an internecine struggle pits a faction with strong democratic bona fides against one clearly undemocratic. In such situations, military intervention becomes thinkable, but many factors must be weighed. These include other American interests that may be at stake, the importance of the country in question, the likely costs of the operation, and the probability of success, military and political. In general, the issue of democracy does not present itself in isolation. Thus, for example, the United States invaded Panama in 1990 to uphold democracy but also to protect Americans under threat, to suppress drug trafficking, and to secure the Canal. None of those issues alone would—or should—have precipitated the invasion.

Where Haiti is concerned, there is one strong argument for American intervention and one strong argument against it. The argument in favor is that while Haiti itself is not very important, Latin America as a whole is. Today, Latin America is more democratic than ever, and it is undertaking economic liberalization that holds great promise. In 1991, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a declaration in which the democratic governments pledged to support one another against the military usurpations that have been the bane of Latin American political history. Insofar as Haiti, an OAS member, provides a test of this commitment, it takes on a larger significance, although the commitment may be fulfilled through diplomatic and economic pressures rather than military action.

The argument against military intervention in Haiti is the unsavory nature of its duly elected government. Not only is Aristide a politician whose stock-in-trade has been virulent anti-Americanism, but he is also one who during his brief tenure in office encouraged violence against his opposition. Hence Haiti, like Algeria, presents the classic democrat’s dilemma: what if the voters democratically elect someone who is anti-democratic? I believe there is no answer to this quandary—which fortunately has arisen only rarely—except to muddle through. In this instance it reinforces the wisdom of seeking a negotiated compromise, rather than a military solution, so that Aristide, once reinstated, is compelled to behave more democratically than he would be inclined to do if left to his own devices.



Of course, humanitarian goals and promoting democracy are not the usual reasons for which America contemplates using force. Our most common and important debates are about security interests that are one or more steps removed from direct self-defense. How far out shall we set our defense perimeter? And what political contingencies shall we deem threatening to it? In addition to defending ourselves against attack, we may fight to defend allies, vital resources, strategic geography, or even abstractions such as commitments, resolve, and law.

The two most important cases with which we have had to wrestle since the end of the cold war have not been Somalia and Haiti, whose tragedies are internal, but rather Kuwait and Bosnia, both victims of their neighbors. In Kuwait we fought to protect a vital resource, to uphold the law against aggression, and to disarm a tyrant who posed a burgeoning threat to peace in a strategically important region. In Bosnia, those who advocate fighting (or at least supporting Bosnia with arms and air strikes) believe it is in our interest to resist aggression, to prevent a wider war in Europe, and to discourage the rise of other aggressive regimes in the states of the former Soviet empire.

No formula will spare us the necessity of examining each case on its individual merits. In recent years, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and others have devised checklists to aid in such assessments. None is an improvement on the traditional Catholic just-war doctrine that dates back to Saint Augustine and which stresses such commonsensical criteria as having a cause weighty enough to justify violence, exhausting other means before resorting to force, having a probability of success, and the like. Weinberger’s and Christopher’s modern-day versions add the criterion of preexisting public support, but this seems to me an evasion of the responsibility of high officials to persuade the public of the necessity of actions they deem important to our security.

Christopher’s list also insists upon an “exit strategy,” a desideratum that has been widely reiterated in recent years. As our Somalia experience suggests, an exit strategy is indeed a good thing to have before undertaking humanitarian interventions, but where urgent security interests are at stake, no such luxury may be available.

My own checklist would emphasize trying to uphold the UN charter’s proscription of aggression. Beyond that, I believe we are wise to define our security interests widely rather than narrowly. That is what we did in the cold war, and it was amply vindicated. Even Vietnam, the greatest failure of our strategy of forward defense, may be seen in retrospect as a sorry episode in an otherwise overwhelmingly successful policy of containment.

Those who would define our security narrowly like to remind us that America is not omnipotent. Yet this is precisely why we cannot rest secure within a Fortress America or something close to it, why we ought to be concerned with protecting the peace and not just protecting our borders. In Vietnam, which so strongly colors our thinking, we may have reached too far, but the three other major wars we fought in this century were all at least partly brought on by narrow definitions of security—Britain’s before World War I, our own before World War II, and the exclusion of Korea from our defense perimeter before the war there.

We need to think not only about when and where to use force but also how to use it. One does not have to accept Colin Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force to see the wisdom of deploying Americans in contingents armed and large enough to maximize their safety. When it was revealed that Secretary of Defense Les Aspin had turned down a request for armor in Somalia, he said this decision had reflected his best judgment. No doubt he would have chosen differently had he foreseen or even suspected that he was endangering some of his men. But this only reminds us of what an imprecise thing military foresight is, and of the necessity of erring in the direction of deploying too much rather than too little.

The worrisome question is whether a similarly flawed judgment has shaped the entire Clinton defense program, which, driven by budgetary considerations, cuts our forces much more deeply than Aspin himself proposed when he was still head of the House Armed Services Committee a year ago.

We ought also to be cautious, as we might have learned in 1983 from the loss of the Marines sent by President Reagan to Beirut, about using Americans as peacekeepers or UN peacemakers. America’s “comparative advantage” is in an aggressive, not a passive, role. It would be foolhardy to squander the American public’s tolerance for accepting casualties in peacekeeping missions that anyone can perform and thereby constrict America’s unique warmaking capacity, which is a vital pillar of world peace. That is why it is far more sensible for the U.S. to help Bosnia defend itself than to coerce it into an uneasy surrender and then place Americans between the injured Bosnians and their predators.



We ought, finally, to be skeptical of UN-led multilateralism. It is important to have allies and the cooperation of other nations, and we may hope that the UN will in time improve. But it still has a long way to go. It boasts a dismal record of hypocrisy and mediocrity, and it remains a body most of whose members are dictatorships, and whose human-rights organs have been chaired by the likes of Cuba and Soviet Byelorussia.

On the ground in Somalia, we got a bracing taste of UN peacemaking. Italian units cozied up to Aidid and were blamed for having jeopardized Nigerians who lost seven men to his forces. According to news accounts, the Italians were even suspected of having tipped off Aidid about one American raid that attempted to capture him. Pakistani units, which back in June absorbed casualties greater than ours of October, were less shaken than we were, but their trigger-fingers were lightened by the experience and they were soon blamed for shooting many unarmed Somali protesters.

But if we should not hitch our wagon to the star of Boutros-Ghali, neither should we beat too hasty a retreat from Somalia. As Senator Sam Nunn said: “The last thing we need is for the word to go out that the way to get Americans to leave a country is to kill a few people.” Alas, as Haiti showed, it is too late to slam that barn door. Still, we might minimize the harm by looking for an opportunity to settle scores with Aidid. In Haiti, we should muddle along with our diplomatic endeavors, knowing that between the bloody heirs to the Duvalier dynasty and the mercurial Aristide, the democratic prospect remains cloudy. In Bosnia, though the hour is late, we still ought to help the Muslims and their allies defend themselves.

More broadly, we ought to keep in mind that America’s might remains the bedrock of peace and freedom in the world. We ought not to employ force casually, but neither should we reserve it for little more than direct self-defense. For such a course is the one most likely to put us in a position in which we have to use force precisely for direct self-defense, and at a far greater cost in American blood and treasure.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.