"Anatomy of the disaster in Somalia," screamed the Time headline in October 1993. "Trapped in Somalia," read the Newsweek front page.
Eighteen Americans had just died in the infamous Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu. Images of a captured U.S. pilot and American bodies being dragged through the streets were all over the networks.
The mission in Somalia became widely seen as one of the greatest military disasters since Vietnam. In October 1993, 66 percent of Americans thought the operation to "provide humanitarian relief" in Somalia was a failure. Congressmen angrily demanded U.S. withdrawal.
Hollywood later reinforced the impression of Somalia as a debacle. The 2001 movie Black Hawk Down focused in harrowing detail on a single event--the eighteen-hour shoot-out in Mogadishu. You can watch a clip from the movie here:
But the popular view of Somalia as a catastrophe is mistaken. Errors were made and there were very real costs. But, overall, it was a heroic mission that saved thousands of lives. Skewed perceptions proved disastrous, searing humanitarian intervention with the mark of Cain, and sapping the will to fight genocide the following year in Rwanda.
To understand the true story, we need to turn the clock back almost a year before the events of Black Hawk Down. After the Cold War ended, the East African state of Somalia disintegrated into clan-based warfare and widespread famine. In response, President George H. W. Bush announced that the United States would intervene to secure the delivery of humanitarian relief.
On December 9, 1992, U.S. naval commandos slipped ashore as an advance guard in Somalia. But a small army was waiting for them on the beach, employing bright lights that blinded the commandos. Fortunately, it was an army of journalists and cameramen. In a bid to win the public relations battle in Somalia, officials had tipped off the press. The result was a cross between Omaha Beach and Oscar night.
The U.S. intervention achieved impressive results. By helping to end the famine, American forces saved around 100,000 lives (some estimates put the figure in the low tens of thousands, others at over one million). The number of refugees was cut in half. Soldiers built or repaired roads and schools, and trained several thousand police.
In 1993, without sufficient planning, the operation became fixated on tracking down one particular warlord--General Aideed--who was blamed for attacks on international forces.
This was the road that led to Black Hawk Down on October 3-4, 1993. The United States actually achieved its core objective that day, by capturing several Somalis linked to Aideed--but American casualties were far higher than expected. Still, in his definitive account, The Atlantic's Mark Bowden wrote that the Special Forces who fought in Mogadishu were "proud of successfully completing their mission."
Overall, 43 Americans died in Somalia, or one for every 2,500 Somali lives saved. But in the American mind, Somalia became synonymous with a single word: failure.
In part, the mission suffered from overblown expectations. Early efforts to provide food and security in Somalia went so well that the project looked deceptively easy. Americans lost interest until October 1993, when they were suddenly awakened by news of 18 dead soldiers.
And it was also the manner of the deaths. Press coverage was dominated by visceral images of mutilated American corpses. Journalists sometimes ignored the bigger picture, including pro-American demonstrations in Somalia, and successful efforts to save lives and restore order outside of the capital.
In the wake of Black Hawk Down, Washington ended the mission. Somalia became a haven for Islamic extremists and pirates. And America's enemies learned their own lessons. In his 1996 fatwa against the United States, Osama bin Laden announced that after a few minor battles in Somalia: "You left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you."
Tragically, memories of Somalia deterred the United States from intervening to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. As an editorial in The New York Timesput it, "Somalia provides ample warning against plunging open-endedly into a 'humanitarian' mission."
Somalia does provide warnings. But it also shows the potential of a determined and well-resourced mission to dramatically stabilize a humanitarian crisis. Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, who commanded a small UN force in Rwanda during the genocide, claimed that with just 5,000 well equipped troops he could have ended the slaughter and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the troops weren't available. The ghosts of Somalia helped conjure up the ghosts of Rwanda.
President-elect Donald Trump has committed a sharp breach of protocol—one that underscores just how weird some important protocols are.
Updated on December 2 at 7:49 p.m.
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
A single dose of magic mushrooms can make people with severe anxiety and depression better for months, according to a landmark pair of new studies.
The doom hung like an anvil over her head. In 2012, a few years after Carol Vincent was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was waiting to see whether her cancer would progress enough to require chemotherapy or radiation. The disease had already done a number on her, inflating lymph nodes on her chin, collar bones, and groin. She battled her symptoms while running her own marketing business. To top it all off, she was going through menopause.
“Life is just pointless stress, and then you die,” she thought. “All I’m doing is sitting here waiting for all this shit to happen.”
When one day at an intersection she mulled whether it would be so bad to get hit by a car, she realized her mental health was almost as depleted as her physical state.
The Daily Show host was measured, respectful, and challenging in his 26-minute conversation with TheBlaze pundit Tomi Lahren.
Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old host of Tomi on the conservative cable network TheBlaze, feels like a pundit created by a computer algorithm, someone who primarily exists to say something provocative enough to jump to the top of a Facebook feed. She’s called the Black Lives Matter movement “the new KKK,” partly blamed the 2015 Chattanooga shootings on President Obama’s “Muslim sensitivity,” and declared Colin Kaepernick a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry-baby.” At a time when such charged political rhetoric feels increasingly like the norm, Lahren stands at one end of a widening gulf—which made her appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Wednesday night all the more fascinating.
In his first year at The Daily Show, Noah has struggled to distinguish himself in an outrage-driven late-night universe. He has sometimes seemed too flip about the failures of the country’s news media, something his predecessor Jon Stewart made a perennial target. Noah’s 26-minute conversation with Lahren, though, posted in its entirety online, set the kind of tone that Stewart frequently called for throughout his tenure. The segment never turned into a screaming match, but it also avoided platitudes and small-talk. Lahren was unapologetic about her online bombast and leaned into arguments that drew gasps and boos from Noah’s audience, but the host remained steadfastly evenhanded throughout. If Noah was looking for a specific episodethat would help him break out in his crowded field, he may have finally found it.
A few weeks ago, I was trying to call Cuba. I got an error message—which, okay, international telephone codes are long and my fingers are clumsy—but the phone oddly started dialing again before I could hang up. A voice answered. It had a British accent and it was reading: “...the moon was shining brightly. The Martians had taken away the excavating-machine…”
Apparently, I had somehow called into an audiobook of The War of the Worlds. Suspicious of my clumsy fingers, I double-checked the number. It was correct (weird), but I tried the number again, figuring that at worst, I’d learn what happened after the Martians took away the excavating machine. This time, I got the initial error message and the call disconnected. No Martians.
This week, the U.S. president-elect spoke with the Pakistani prime minister and, according to the Pakistani government’s account of the conversation, delivered the following message: Everything is awesome. It was, arguably, the most surprising presidential phone call since George H.W. Bush got pranked by that pretend Iranian president.
Pakistan, Donald Trump reportedly told Nawaz Sharif, is a “fantastic” country full of “fantastic” people that he “would love” to visit as president. Sharif was described as “terrific.” Pakistanis “are one of the most intelligent people,” Trump allegedly added. “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”
Critics say she failed to energize the Democratic base. But vote totals show her biggest shortcomings were in counties that opposed Barack Obama the most.
It now seems likely that Hillary Clinton will get fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012. More distressingly for Democrats, she fared worse in Democratic-leaning cities that anchor swing states, including Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. To critics on the left, that’s evidence of a campaign that dragged its feet, and a candidate who took her base for granted. Her defeat, in their minds, was an unforced error.
But the numbers show something different. There’s no question Clinton faltered in some Democratic cities, but the gaps between her haul and Obama’s in those locations were modest. The vast majority of her deficit came instead from counties that Obama lost in 2012: They didn’t like him, but they really hated her.
A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.
Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.
We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.
This morning, straight off the plane from Shanghai, I was on The Diane Rehm Show with Margaret Sullivan, much-missed former Public Editor of the NYT who is now with the WaPo, and Glenn Thrush of Politico. We were talking about how to deal with the unprecedented phenomenon that is Donald Trump, related to the “Trump’s Lies” item I did two days ago.
You can listen to the whole segment here, but I direct your attention to the part starting at time 14:40. That is when Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump stalwart, joins the show to assert that “this is all a matter of opinion” and “there are no such things as facts.”
You can listen again starting at around time 18:30, when I point out one of the specific, small lies of the Trump campaign—that the NFL had joined him in complaining about debate dates, which the NFL immediately denied—and Hughes says: Well, this is also just a matter of opinion. Hughes mentions at time 21:45 that she is a “classically studied journalist,” an assertion that left Glenn Thrush, Margaret Sullivan, Diane Rehm, and me staring at one another in puzzlement, this not being a normal claim in our field.
The Minnesota progressive’s run for DNC chair demonstrates the pressures for the party as it tries to recover from a disastrous 2016 election.
Deciding who will chair a political party probably isn’t the most effective place to fight for the soul of that party. Did Reince Priebus or any of the people who supported his run for Republican National Committee chair foresee president Trump? But DNC chair is the slot that’s open now, so that’s where Democrat are hashing out their differences.
Almost all of the pressures on and contradictions within the party can be projected onto Keith Ellison, the U.S. representative from Minnesota, who announced his bid for the spot shortly after the disastrous election for Democrats. That follows several years of disastrous cycles for the party—despite President Obama’s two terms, Democrats have been pummeled at the state and national levels—and the party stewardship of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is widely viewed as shiftless and failed. With the Democratic field for 2020 diffuse and enigmatic, the chairmanship is one place to fight the battle.