One of the central prongs in the right-wing effort to blame Bill Clinton for the growth of al-Qaida (and one of the central aspects of the general neoconservative mythology of how to fight terrorism) revolves around Somalia. Specifically, the right-wingers claim that President Clinton’s withdrawal of troops from Somalia after a Muslim militia dragged the bodies of U.S. troops through the streets of Mogadishu conveyed weakness to the Muslim world and showed that we could be easily defeated. We suffer a few casualties, and we run away. They claim that that perceived weakness — “cutting and running” from Somalia — is what “emboldened” Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to wage war against us.
But that is pure historical revisionism; it is just completely false. And being subjected to that accusation this weekend by Fox News’ Chris Wallace appears — understandably — to have been what principally triggered Clinton’s anger in responding to those accusations during his interview. Wallace asked Clinton about “how the fact that when you pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993, bin Laden said, ‘I have seen the frailty and the weakness and the cowardice of U.S. troops.’” In response, Clinton said: “They were all trying to get me to withdraw from Somalia in 1993 the next day after we were involved in ‘Black Hawk down,’ and I refused to do it and stayed six months and had an orderly transfer to the United Nations.”
If anything, Clinton understated his own defense. After the U.S. troops were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, numerous conservative senators and representatives — mostly Republican along with some conservative Southern Democrats — demanded that Clinton withdraw all American troops immediately, insisting that the U.S. had no interest in Somalia and that not one more American troop should die there. They gave speeches stoked with nationalistic anger and angrily demanded immediate withdrawal, and even threatened to introduce legislation to cut off all funding for any troop maintenance in Somalia.
Clinton — along with Democratic senators such as John Kerry — vigorously argued against immediate withdrawal, in part because of the concern that America would look weak by panicking and abandoning its mission at the first sign of trouble (just like President Reagan did in 1983 when he immediately withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon after the attack on U.S. Marines). Clinton had to virtually beg to be allowed to keep troops for an additional six months (and he even increased American troop levels) to stabilize the situation, demonstrate U.S. resolve and a commitment to the mission and, most of all, avoid a panicky, fear-driven retreat.
I have compiled — here — just some of the numerous Senate speeches by conservative Republican senators demanding immediate troop withdrawals, speeches by Clinton and Democratic senators (such as John Kerry) warning of the dangers of immediately withdrawing in the face of U.S. casualties, and various news accounts making clear that the cut-and-run argument was being made most vocally by conservative Republican senators who wanted to force the commander in chief to abandon the mission in Somalia the minute it became difficult and dangerous. Reading these excepts reveals just how completely misleading — how outrageously revisionist — is the accusation that it was Bill Clinton who emboldened Islamic extremists by beating a quick retreat from Somalia.
As but one example, President Clinton gave a speech on Oct. 8, 1993, to argue against the demands from the conservative right that we withdraw immediately from Somalia and to explain why it was vital that we stay. This is part of what Clinton said in his speech: “And make no mistake about it, if we were to leave Somalia tomorrow, other nations would leave, too. Chaos would resume, the relief effort would stop and starvation soon would return. That knowledge has led us to continue our mission … Recently, Gen. Colin Powell said this about our choices in Somalia: ‘Because things get difficult, you don’t cut and run. You work the problem and try to find a correct solution’ … So let us finish the work we set out to do. Let us demonstrate to the world, as generations of Americans have done before us, that when Americans take on a challenge, they do the job right.”
Republican senators attempted to force an immediate withdrawal and then ultimately compromised on a compelled withdrawal in six months. As but one example, from a Senate floor speech by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, on Oct. 6, 1993: “The United States has no interest in the civil war in Somalia and as this young soldier told me, if the Somalis are now healthy enough to be fighting us, then it is absolutely time that we go home … It is time for the Senate of the United States to get on with the debate, to get on with the vote, and to get the American troops home.” Sen. Robert Dole, in a Senate speech, on Oct. 5, 1993: “I think it is clear to say from the meeting we had earlier with — I do not know how many Members were there — 45, 50 Senators and half the House of Representatives, that the administration is going to be under great pressure to bring the actions in Somalia to a close.”
Contrary to neoconservative myth, the U.S. did not run away from Somalia at the first sign of violence. Rather, we stayed six months and even increased our troop levels, but only because President Clinton fought and battled to do so in the face of right-wing demands that he cut and run immediately.
The extent to which blatantly false propaganda can be casually disseminated in our political dialogue is genuinely jarring. Bush followers can make these blatantly false accusations and Chris Wallace can repeat them because they usually go unrebutted by a media that is too slothful and shallow to do the most basic research to determine if they were true. That is why Clinton’s aggressive responses to Wallace were so welcome — it is tragically rare to see anyone forcefully attacking the false propaganda that is the staple of our political debates.