Ed Driscoll

For Want of an AC-130?

Back in 2002, during the early days of this blog, we reviewed Ridley Scott’s film of Mark Bowden’s great mid-1990s book, Black Hawk Down, especially the most important scene in the movie–and simultaneously, its most flubbed:

The line that Sam Shepard, as General Garrison, says about “Washington, in its infinite wisdom, denied us the use tanks and an AC-130 Specter Gunship” was said so quickly, and not elaborated on, that the significance of it was easy to miss. When [I later showed my wife] an article on what exactly an AC-130 is, she replied, “oh, now that would have been nice to have!”. No kidding. But as Podhoretz writes:

we cannot understand why Americans are in Somalia or why it’s important to be watching the movie. Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer salute the bravery of the soldiers, which is funny, because they’re both cowards. They can’t bear to face the fact that the proximate cause for the disasters that befell the Americans that day in Somalia — and the horrifying consequences to America and the West in the quick pullout that followed — are due entirely to Hollywood’s hero, Bill Clinton.Oh, they know it. But they won’t say it. And that tentativeness is one of the causes for the failure of Black Hawk Down to do much besides make you feel ill.

Bowden writes in his infinitely more detailed book, the man who refused the request for the AC-130 was Les Aspin, President Clinton’s first secretary of defense. He did so for reasons of political correctness: it wouldn’t have looked right to the world if Americans were to use overwhelming force against the lesser armed Somali warlords.

As Carroll Andrew Morse writes in a Tech Central Station piece titled, “Origins of the Post-Democratic Democrats“, that decision, which arguably ultimately caused the subsequent disaster in Somolia may have had enormous consequences for the Democrats, especially post 9/11:

How did one of history’s original democratic political parties become so indifferent to the cause of democracy?One popular explanation is structural factors. Peculiarities of the American system of campaigns and elections force candidates towards policy stands that please the more extreme elements of their electoral base. Others suggest a more visceral explanation; partisans from one side hate the leader of the other side to the point where they refuse to support the major programs supported by an opposing leader. I propose a third, simpler alternative. The Democratic leadership is telling us what they really believe — that democracy is not all that important.

It was not always like this for the Democrats. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart recently used a 1947 meeting of the Americans for Democratic Action to remind Democrats that there was once strong support for democracy within their party. Signs of democratic life within the Democratic party were, in fact, visible during the early days of Bill Clinton’s first term in 1993. In September of 1993, Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake articulated a grand strategy for the post-Cold War world — the strategy of “democratic enlargement”. In front of the United Nations General Assembly, President Clinton said, “during the cold war we sought to contain a threat to the survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions”.

You probably do not remember democratic enlargement as the grand strategy of the Clinton administration. That is because, less than a month after it was publicly unveiled, 18 American servicemen were killed in a failed attempt to capture a local warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia. The failed raid generated substantial negative publicity about the incoherence of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. As a result, Clinton backed away from democratic enlargement, fearing any implied suggestion of foreign commitments could undermine his Presidency. (This is not a revisionist view of the Clinton administration. Historian Douglas Brinkley chronicled both the development and the abandonment of democratic enlargement in the Spring 1997 issue of Foreign Policy).

Today, we think of Somalia as an important turning point in the war on terror, the moment when terrorist organizations began to believe that America had become too soft to defend itself. But Somalia was also a turning point in a different kind of conflict.

Since the radicalism of the 1960s found a sympathetic home in the Democratic party, the party has been consumed by an internal struggle. On the one hand, the Democrats want to be the liberal party: the party that believes in the primacy of individual liberty, the party that believes the proper role of government is to protect spaces where individuals can thrive, and that history is ultimately driven by the actions of individuals. On the other hand, the Democrats are also America’s party of the left: the party that believes that history is unstoppable change driven by impersonal forces, that the proper role of government is to move individuals to the right side of history, and protect them from being overwhelmed by forces they cannot control, perhaps not even understand.

The events in Somalia, and the reaction at home, gave the advantage to leftism over liberalism in the struggle for the soul of the Democratic party, an advantage leftism has yet to relinquish.

Of course, as Morse notes:

A single failed mission, by itself, did not move the Democrats to their present leftism untempered by liberalism. The shift in foreign policy resulting from Somalia — a reticence to even discuss individual political freedom — accelerated the movement of a generation of Democratic leaders in a direction they were already comfortable moving. Individuals who began their political careers in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, when American radicalism was near its peak, held on to an atmospheric skepticism about ideas like American exceptionalism, American values, and even the importance of American democracy. They internalized a distrust of the idea that there could be anything special about the nature of American power.

It’s interesting to note however, that political correctness, which defined the American left since at least 1980s, has also ultimately done enormous damage to them at the ballot box beginning in 1994–which seems fair: it’s done enormous damage to this country as a whole, not the least of which are those 18 dead servicemen and the chain of events in the 1990s that our failed mission in Somalia setup, which flow directly into 9/11.