Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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By Wednesday, stories were going around that a week earlier, Aspin had turned down a request from Major General Thomas Montgomery, the senior American military commander in Somalia, for reinforcements -- including tanks and other armored vehicles that, had they been available, could have rescued the Rangers in the Oct. 3 fire fight much sooner. Aspin eventually confirmed that, and gave his reason: at a time when the U.S. was considering dispatching a peacekeeping force to Bosnia, he did not want to make it look as if the nation was increasing, rather than reducing, its force in Somalia. Though Aspin will be kept on, he may have permanently damaged his effectiveness.

While these congressional-relations disasters were unfolding, however, a policy was quickly taking shape. By early Tuesday afternoon, Lake had faxed a 10-page options paper to Clinton, who was flying back to Washington aboard Air Force One. At 6:30 that night, Clinton met with his top advisers, who argued out a number of different ideas before him. There was never any discussion of immediate withdrawal. "The President rejected that as too damaging to our ability to function militarily in the world," says a top official. By the time they broke up they were agreed on the essentials of the strategy: reinforce the troops, shift from a get-Aidid policy to a more political approach and set a hard deadline for withdrawal.

The group reconvened over coffee at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, with Oakley attending. By then the Pentagon was reporting that General Joseph P. Hoar, commander of the U.S. Central Command in Somalia, was proposing a March 31 deadline. White House officials admit that the date is arbitrary, but they think it provides -- maybe -- sufficient time to contain (though perhaps not capture) Aidid and negotiate a political settlement among clan elders and militia leaders without committing the U.S. to a dragged-out effort. Clinton agreed Wednesday morning -- even before his inappropriate happy talk at the bill-signing ceremony -- and the plan was firmed up at two more meetings. During the third, which did not include Clinton and lasted six hours before breaking up at 1:30 a.m. Thursday, word of the mortar attack and an additional American death at Mogadishu airport arrived. Clinton decided the next morning to send more armor with the reinforcements heading for Somalia.

On Thursday Clinton met in the morning with congressional leaders, who engaged him in spirited but mostly constructive debate. The most common complaint was that the U.S. had no vital interests in Somalia; Clinton replied, in an odd echo of the kind of arguments he might surely have rejected as a Vietnam War protester, that the vital interest at stake was the credibility of American power: the U.S. could not just cut and run. Leaving the meeting, some lawmakers gave reporters the idea that Clinton would delay his projected speech to the nation -- which prompted the White House to hurry it up instead.

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