Briefing Book

Somalia: Too Big a Problem to Fail?

A new hotbed of terror could be a domestic problem for Obama. But he shouldn't treat it like one.


As Hillary Clinton was holding talks with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed today in Nairobi, Kenya — Mogadishu being far too dangerous for a U.S. secretary of state to visit — Somalia itself stood once again at a violent crossroads.

A loose alliance of hard-line Islamist groups, some with links to al Qaeda, controls most of the countryside and has pushed Somalia’s internationally backed, but institutionally feeble, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) out of all but a few enclaves in the capital, Mogadishu (the New York Times reported Thursday that Sheikh Sharif’s government controls "no more than a few city blocks").

Clinton and the Obama administration are concerned, not least because they have major stakes in the country, both in terms of national security and, less obviously, domestic politics. In theory, that kind of interest should inspire the United States to choose its policies carefully and work to stabilize Somalia however long and hard that might be. But the truth is more politically fraught: If extremist groups prevail over the TFG, conservative American pundits will have ample fodder to portray Obama as weak on terrorism. And even if the facts on the ground don’t fit that partisan story, it will take great courage for the administration to resist making look-tough policy decisions abroad to fight rear-guard political battles at home.

Part of what makes Somalia’s problems so tricky is that the country has garnered perhaps too much interest from all sorts of external actors, many not benign and all working hard to tip the balance in favor of their various Somali allies. Al Qaeda has sent on-the-ground advisors and an estimated 100 or so foreign fighters to the most prominent Somali Islamist militia, al-Shabab. In the other corner are the United States, the United Nations, and the African Union, among others, backing the TFG. In June, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that U.S. support has recently included sending arms and ammunition to support TFG security forces — some 40 tons so far, with more on the way.

This sort of military assistance might appear a tough response to a serious national security threat. But it should be tempered with a bit of history. Foreign powers have a long record of injecting guns and cash into Somalia in support of one faction or another, but their investment rarely yields the desired result. It’s possible that the TFG could regroup, exploit divisions in the Islamist insurgency, and eventually prevail. But it is just as likely that al-Shabab and other extremist groups will consolidate control over southern and central Somalia and overwhelm the TFG.

The fall of Mogadishu would not appreciably worsen the threat that al-Shabab and al Qaeda already pose. Since early 2002, al-Shabab has controlled much of the Somali countryside and issued threats aimed at neighboring states. It does not need to capture the capital to create mischief in the wider region; it already controls border areas with Kenya and an all-weather seaport and airport in the city of Kismayo.

Nonetheless, if Islamist insurgents capture Mogadishu, foreign-policy hawks in the Republican Party and right-wing commentators will seize on the setback to claim that the Obama administration "lost Somalia" to al Qaeda. And the last thing the Obama administration can afford is to give its conservative opponents an easy opportunity to portray it as weak on defense. Questions would be raised about why the administration failed to provide more robust and direct military support to the new, moderate Islamic TFG coalition that took over in the first half of 2009, following the New Year withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces that had been securing the previous TFG government’s tenuous hold on power.

But that line of attack would be a serious misreading of Somalia. If the TFG does indeed fall, it will not be for lack of support from the United States. The new administration acted judiciously in the first half of 2009, carefully calibrating U.S. support to the TFG. Many expected the new, moderate Islamic TFG to garner more internal support and legitimacy by presenting itself as a genuine Somali solution — a broad-based, moderate Islamic government that sought peace both within Somalia and with regional neighbors. Had the Obama administration smothered it with foreign aid and military backing, the TFG would have been seen as a puppet of the West, a charge that al-Shabab would quickly have seized upon to discredit the already fragile government

If the TFG is overrun, it will not be Obama’s fault, but rather because the TFG’s new leadership dropped the ball and failed to build the necessary coalitions to outmaneuver a radical Islamist movement that appeared to be in deep trouble only six months ago.

Even if the United States wanted to dive into the Somalia crisis head first, the truth is that it has a very limited ability to shape short-term outcomes in Mogadishu. As the world has learned from watching other attempts to fight the war on terrorism elsewhere, the hard work of combating radicalism, promoting state-building, pushing for reconciliation, and encouraging political moderation is impossible without minimally dedicated and competent local partners. Given the TFG’s dismal performance in the first half of 2009, there are serious questions about whether the transitional authority is really up to that task.

The terrible historical irony is that the United States now risks seeing a replay of the political fallout that followed the 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia. Then, outgoing President George H.W. Bush bequeathed a dangerous mess in Somalia to the incoming Bill Clinton administration. George W. Bush did the same: leaving office when Somalia’s chaos was about to ramp up and U.S. support would once again be paramount. Clinton pulled U.S. forces out of Somalia just a few months after the notorious "Black Hawk Down" incident saw 18 U.S. soldiers killed, and the American public recoiled from foreign intervention for a decade.

Today, the Obama foreign-policy team must resist the temptation to treat Somalia as a political problem if equally dire consequences are to be avoided. Anything less will yield paper solutions and empty gestures designed to preempt Republican attacks. Somalia has had many such "solutions" before. After two decades of war, what it needs now is long-term management of a messy crisis that, for the moment at least, presents options that range only from bad to worse.

Ken Menkhaus is a professor of political science at Davidson College, a specialist on Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and a senior fellow at the Enough Project, a project at the Center for American Progress to end genocide and crimes against humanity.