US Public and Somalia

Americans' views on role, casualties make it difficult to measure reactions

THE killing of 15 American servicemen in Mogadishu on Oct. 3 and the wounding of 77 others has put US policy on Somalia under intense scrutiny. Questions are raised as to what the public wants done. Most poll accounts suggest that the main response is an insistence that US troops be withdrawn immediately. USA Today reported on Oct. 7 that polls ``show the nation urgently wants troops to come home now - no matter what.''

A survey taken for NBC News on Oct. 6 found 64 percent saying they favored ``the United States withdrawing all of its troops from Somalia.''

In fact, ``withdraw now'' is a highly incomplete and inaccurate summary of national opinion. Polls taken immediately after the Americans were killed did find majorities opting for withdrawal when the question was asked directly. But this only reminds us again that every response on an opinion survey isn't public opinion. These polls were mostly picking up widespread anger over: the killing of men who had come on a mission of mercy, confusion as to what US policy in Somalia really is, and doubts about President Clinton's leadership.

Data collected in a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today show how dominant the feelings of hurt and frustration were in the aftermath of the killing of American servicemen, and how difficult it is in such an environment to separate out considered judgment about what should be done. Gallup asked respondents whether they had seen news photos of the body of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Fifty percent of those who had said they wanted American troops withdrawn immediately, but just 33 percent of those who hadn't seen the pictures endorsed immediate withdrawal.

Seeing them undoubtedly added to feelings of outrage, but surely those seeing the photos were not, in fact, 17 percentage points more inclined than those not seeing them to favor immediate withdrawal. Many who picked the ``withdraw now'' option in the poll question were, in fact, saying, ``I'm mad and I'm frustrated.''

To see what Americans actually want done in Somalia, we need to step back a bit from the immediate emotions. The public has said repeatedly that it wants the US to play a strong role in world affairs. It has supported high levels of military spending and the use of American forces for clearly defined national interests. When, for example, President Bush ordered a large US force to the Middle East, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the public backed him strongly, even though the policy carried with it grave risks.

Americans have also backed humanitarian interventions when no vital national interests are at stake. When Mr. Bush ordered 28,000 US troops to Somalia in December 1992, the public endorsed the action by a huge majority. Even now, by 2 to 1 it says intervention was the right thing.

What we're seeing now in opinion on Somalia isn't an underlying shift in Americans' view of the country's role in the world, or even a shift in considered judgment about what our immediate policy should be. Rather, we're seeing a public lack of confidence in the president's leadership. When ABC News asked in its Oct. 12 survey whether ``you think Clinton has a clear policy on what to do in Somalia, or not,'' just 28 percent responded in the affirmative.

The US entered Somalia for narrowly-defined humanitarian objectives. But then, this past spring and summer, American goals were changed to include hunting down a factional leader, Mohamed Farah Aideed. The extremely thin US force in Somalia, and the tangled chain of command there, seem to have been sustained by nothing more substantial than hope that nothing bad would happen to the troops obviously placed in harm's way.

Focusing on domestic issues, the administration has seemed to drift and stumble in its policies abroad.

This has left many Americans profoundly unsettled. The public has shown itself inclined to give the president great leeway in foreign policy, including the use of US troops, when it is given a coherent policy. But when the leadership has seemed confused or vacillating, anxiety has risen rapidly. We saw this displayed dramatically in the last two years of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Mr. Carter's defeat in 1980 was due largely to a loss of confidence in his foreign-policy leadership.

The Clinton administration has a heavy domestic agenda. But world affairs won't slow down or stop demanding much of US leadership. Nine months into his presidency, Mr. Clinton has failed to demonstrate a secure grasp of foreign affairs. He has not convinced the public that he has a clear sense of where he wants to take the country in this post-cold-war world, or that he has the right officials in place to execute his policies.

For the last half-century foreign affairs has been the one area of public policy where a president could dominate the scene and thus demonstrate his leadership. The president enjoys far more impressive resources in the foreign arena than any given to him in domestic affairs, where Congress's hand is far stronger.

Through inattention to the foreign-policy domain, Clinton risks squandering a unique American opportunity to lead constructively in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and he puts his own political fortunes in jeopardy.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.