When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it marked a period of transition for United States foreign policy. The next two years would see the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe. By the end of 1991, the United States forged a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and was alone atop the world. The US was the sole super power, or hyper power, if you must. But that role, while gigantic, was still undefined. Was the US going to be the Policeman of the world now that the USSR was gone? Was it going to assert its influence at will or would it pick and choose? Would the US become a hegemonic machine throughout the world?
The concept of the US being the world’s policeman was almost 100 year’s old. Teddy Roosevelt saw the US in that role in the early 1900s.
The role did not suit the US well as it continued to grow economically and socially in the wake of the industrial revolution and expansion into world markets. By the 1920s, the US had backed off its entry into world affairs and reverted back to isolationist policies and was more concerned with Western Hemisphere issues. After World War I, the US failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and did not join the League of Nations. It would, almost literally, stick its head in the sand.
After World War II, the US restructured its foreign policy in the remnants of devastation. Relying on the UN, Harry Truman tried to stop the spread of communism by using the UN in a “police action” in South Korea. However, in 1964 and 1965, Lyndon Johnson went in alone in South Vietnam for the same reason. After Vietnam, the role of the US in the world changed dramatically. What Jimmy Carter called a “malaise” lasted throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Military actions in Grenada and Panama helped restore US confidence. Operation Desert Storm pushed the confidence to a hubris. Questions grew as the US began asserting its influence more and more in third world nations because it felt it had to. If the US did nothing, then the world did nothing. This was the thinking of George H.W. Bush when he committed troops to Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. Bush said of the aid effort,
“Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia. The scope of suffering there is hard to imagine. Only the United States has the global reach to place a large security force on the ground in such a distant place quickly and efficiently and thus save thousands of innocents from death.”
Bush initially sent 2.500 troops to help with aid.
In August of 1993, 440 US Army Rangers arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to help distribute food and medical supplies to citizens torn apart by a civil war. Up to 14 armed factions disrupted the aid and medicine. The one faction the US was most concerned with was the one led by Mohammed Aidid. Little did the US know at the time, but nearby in Sudan, Osama Bin Laden had his eyes on the turmoil there. Bin Laden did not appreciate the US being on Somali soil to help guard food shipments. Bin Laden began to aid factions like Aidid’s.
The US forces were stationed at the airport. Using helicopters, they could fly over the congested city to any point within minutes. Sgt. Randy Ramaglia said of flying in helicopter in Mogadishu,
“It was a total sense of power, being in the helicopter over that city. You know, I don’t like to come across like that, but I- I tell you what. It was, like, all business.”
When Pakistani relief workers were killed in Mogadishu that summer, arrest warrants went out for Aidid. The US along with other United Nations peacekeeping forces began to hunt the man. On October 3, 1993, two of Aidid’s top aides were rumored to be meeting near a hotel in Mogadishu. The US put together a plan to go and get them.
When the US helicopters took off after 3 p.m., little did the soldiers know it would become one of the most memorable 24 hours in US military history.
Somehow the mission had changed. The US and UN had gone from being there to distribute food to know being a legitimate police force in a civil war. The US had now put itself in a position where it became the moral authority in another nation. The mission on October 3 was to only last 30 minutes.
The mission, codenamed “Irene,” took off toward a part of Mogadishu nicknamed, Indian Territory – a part of town considered to be hostile. A combination of 19 helicopters took off and Delta Force was on its way.
The initial force raided the building and arrested 20 Somalis. However, word of the US presence spread quickly. First dozens of fighters, soon hundreds, and then thousands of Somalis joined the attack. Tires were set of fire to alert other Somalis where to go. On the ground, the Rangers also had a ground convoy dispatched to the scene. Hand held rocket-propelled grenades shot down a Black Hawk helicopter nearby. Piloted by Cliff Wolcott, the helicopter crashed to the ground in between the buildings. The next 24 hours would not be pretty. The mission had changed to a rescue mission. Wolcott did not survive. 30 Rangers from another helicopter dropped down to help find and guard the down copter. Aidid saw this as an opportunity which he could not pass up to kill and destroy American forces on the ground.
The US forces set up positions in nearby buildings and waited for help to arrive to arrive. As the US controlled the air, Somalis on the ground dragged one dead American through the streets of Mogadishu. This sent shock waves through the US television showed the graphic images. Americans felt they were supposed to be helping the Somalis and were mortified by the Somali desecration.
The night of October 3rd arrived and the US forces tried to find all of its missing men. Over night, the US embarked on an overnight mission to recapture all 99 lost and downed men. The firefight dragged on into the next day between the surrounded Rangers and the Somalis. Many civilians died in the crossfire. It was estimated that over 1000 Somalis died but accurate numbers of any kind could not be attained.
On October 4, a convoy led by American tanks thought they had rescued the troops. Around 6 a.m. the last American convoy set out towards to a rallying point set up by the Pakistanis at a nearby Soccer Stadium. Running behind them for a mile were several Rangers who were not accounted for when the convoy sped away. Another, Ranger Michael Durant, was captured by Aidid and put on TV, and later Durant’s face graced every magazine in the country. It took a show of force, including off shore gun ships, for President Clinton to gain Durant’s release after the battle was over.
Three days later, President Clinton addressed the nation on October 7, 1993.
My fellow Americans, today I want to talk with you about our nation’s military involvement in Somalia. Let me express my thanks and my gratitude and my profound sympathy to the families of the young Americans who were killed in Somalia. My message to you is your country is grateful, and so is the rest of the world, and so are the vast majority of the Somali people. Our mission from this day forward is to increase our strength, do our job, bring our soldiers out and bring them home. Thank you and God bless America.
Within days, the US began pulling out of Somalia. Aidid would die from a heart attack shortly after receiving a gunshot wound in 1996.
The coming years would see the US reticent to do anything abroad except in the Balkans. The third world was now off-limits. Over a million would die in Rwanda and Sudan in the next decade, yet the US did little or nothing. For Somalia, the leaving of the US and further plunged the country into more years of darkness from which it still has not emerged. For the US, its presence in that part of the world is still a thorn. As for Africa, the US has stayed out of the region militarily while providing only financial and humanitarian aid. The hegemony the US thought it would spread in the wake of the end of the Cold War, was now shattered.
For further study
The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger by Matt Eversmann
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden