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If Trump Isn’t Planning to Draw Down U.S. Intervention in Somalia, He Should Be

This is not a battle crucial to American security.

RICARDO MAZALAN/KRT/NewscomRICARDO MAZALAN/KRT/NewscomThe United States has maintained some degree of military presence inside Somalia for much of the last three decades, but a pattern of escalation that began late in former President Barack Obama's second term has markedly accelerated in the two years since President Donald Trump took office. Airstrikes are on the rise; hundreds of U.S. boots are on the ground; and Trump's March 2017 decision to designate portions of Somalia as "areas of active hostility" means military operations can proceed with less oversight and greater tolerance for civilian casualties.

Somalia is thus, for all intents and purposes, another addition to Washington's roster of undeclared, undebated, and unnecessary wars of uncertain connection to U.S. security—and a Friday report from NBC News suggested Trump had finally come to see it that way. Citing multiple unnamed senior officials, NBC reported the administration would scale down the American military intervention in Somalia, "narrowing" the mission and shifting responsibility to local actors like the African Union and the Somali government.

"Not every nasty character out there is a threat to the U.S.," one official told NBC. "Do we want to do the Somali government's job for it?" A former counterterrorism advisor agreed, noting that Somalia's al-Shabab militants, the main target of U.S. intervention, are realistically "a parochial issue and not a direct threat to the United States." (These comments make key strategic distinctions too often overlooked in recent years of helter-skelter foreign policy: Not all bad guys are threats, and not all threats warrant a military response.)

By Monday, however, the Pentagon pushed back, denying any strategy shift. "There have been no recent policy changes regarding U.S. operations in Somalia," said a Defense Department statement. "We continue to support the Federal Government of Somalia's efforts to degrade al-Shabab."

Trump himself and other high-ranking security officials have yet to comment either way, which makes it difficult to decipher exactly what is going on here. On the one hand, it is possible NBC simply got it wrong. Perhaps the officials quoted were misinformed or working with outdated information. Perhaps they prematurely interpreted a hypothetical drawdown discussion to be a done deal.

That's certainly possible, but a more plausible scenario exists. Trump campaigned on avoiding and ending reckless wars of choice—for all his aggressive, "bomb the shit out of them" rhetoric, he also decried Washington's self-appointed role as "policeman of the world," pledging to "pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past," one that would "stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments."

Trump's presidency, however, has generally continued the same interventionist policies of the last two administrations. His promises of peace, always inconsistent, have been smothered by the foreign policy establishment "blob."

But the last month has seem some glimmer of candidate Trump return: He announced a plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, pledging American soldiers there would be home with their families soon. He reportedly ordered the Pentagon to make plans for withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And on a surprise visit with U.S. forces in Iraq right after Christmas, Trump returned to his campaign-era talk of ending needless interventions. "The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world," he said. "We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven't even heard about. Frankly, it's ridiculous."

This impulse toward restraint, sadly, may be short-lived, as Trump's framing of the Syria plan has already shifted. He started speaking of a "slow" exit, after which National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the withdrawal would not happen at all absent an unlikely guarantee from Turkey. Meanwhile, other administration officials revealed that if any troops do leave Syria, many will simply be redeployed to neighboring Iraq, not sent home as Trump had pledged.

It is not hard to surmise what happened here: Trump wanted U.S. troops to leave Syria; Bolton and other reflexively pro-war members of his advisory team—as well as most of "permanent Washington"—did not. Trump made the initial announcement, but the subsequent implementation, handled by Bolton and his allies, has endangered, if not outright killed, the withdrawal plan. One could be excused for wondering exactly how much Trump controls his own administration's policy.

There is a lesson here about advisor selection, and there is also likely insight into what is happening with the administration's Somalia policy. The president and/or some portion of his team are ready to extricate the United States, having rightly recognized this is not a battle crucial to American security. But they seemingly have been forestalled by more interventionist elements in the White House—figures like Bolton, who in December gave a speech outlining a widespread, activist, military role for the U.S. in Africa.

That is unfortunate because the initial push to draw down U.S. military intervention in Somalia was the right one. If Trump isn't planning to draw down U.S. intervention in Somalia, he should be. Counter-terror in Somalia is a parochial issue which poses no existential threat to America, and there's no reason for Washington to do Mogadishu's job.

Photo Credit: RICARDO MAZALAN/KRT/Newscom

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Do we want to do the Somali government's job for it?

    The Somali what?

  • SQRLSY One||

    The Somalian version of Government Almighty allows one to blow on a cheap plastic flute, sans the permission of a Collective -Hive-Blessed Doctor of Doctorology. The USA, the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave, is the ONLY one on the planet, where citizens are entirely TOOOO stupid to blow on a cheap plastic flute, w/o angering the Flute Police. THAT is why we should seriously consider moving to Somalia!

    In the meantime, I am compelled to perform my pubic duties... Hencewith and boogerswith...

    To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

  • Mickey Rat||

    I seem to recall Somali groups engaging in piracy on the heavily trafficked shipping lanes off the Somali coast. That was not a parochial issue.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Those can easily be handled right out at sea.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its expensive to keep a ship stationed off Somalia to combat pirates, plus there can be lots of area to cover.

    Its also probably expensive to control a base and prevent pirates from even leaving the shore.

    I say Congress should issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal for all Somali boats. Or sweep by every month and sink everything seen from attack helicopters.

    Dont attack our shipping lanes or risk massive American retaliation.

  • Agammamon||

    Sure it is.

    But why would you insist that the government keep a ship stationed there in the first place rather than insisting that the ships that travel that route contract out for their own security?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    That is certainly preferable.

    If that happened, the US Navy could cut billions off its budget to avoid "keeping sea lanes open".

    Companies would be loathe to attack Somali ports to prevent the attacks. Nations like the USA have casus belli to attack Somali boats attacking shipping. its just how our system is set up/

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow. How could you post that.

  • Aloysious||

  • Dan S.||

    I didn't even know we were in Somalia.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its more of what countries are we NOT IN?

  • Juice||

    If Trump wants to go down in history as a great president he should really distance himself from all the others and do something truly heroic by withdrawing a shitload of troops from all over the world, but he's already proved he's a little bitch by backing down on Syria.

  • Ordinary Person||

    Is the tax payer going to save money or are the savings going back into some other use of the military? Are they rearranging pieces or taking some off the table?

  • JFree||

    Why on Earth are we providing the military security for the only libertarian county on Earth?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Only Anarchist country, you mean.

    They dont respect rule of law or property rights, so Somalia is not Libertarian. Lefties often try and throw Somalia in Libertarian's faces.

    So far no Lefties have moved to Communist China to support their desired form of government.

  • JFree||

    That's just nonsense. They have three legal systems - Sharia/Islamic law, Xeer law (clan/elder-based), and modern 'civil law'. People do essentially choose which legal system they will be subject to - even though none of those legal systems accepts the primacy of any other system under any circumstances. THAT is the source of almost all the conflict - but that is not 'anarchist'. It is precisely the sort of conflict that will occur in a contained geography where people get to choose which legal system is sovereign for them.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Your citation fell off.

  • Nardz||

    That is exactly anarchist.
    Anarchy = warlords

  • buybuydandavis||

    "THAT is the source of almost all the conflict - but that is not 'anarchist'. It is precisely the sort of conflict that will occur in a contained geography where people get to choose which legal system is sovereign for them."

    No true anarcho capitalism!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    If we only had an investigative group whose entire job is to ask questions and report the news.

  • M.L.||

    "If Trump Isn't Planning to Draw Down U.S. Intervention in Somalia, He Should Be"

    And if he is planning to, then he also should be.

  • buybuydandavis||

    ' noting that Somalia's al-Shabab militants, the main target of U.S. intervention, are realistically "a parochial issue and not a direct threat to the United States." '

    Jihadist group that pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, but couldn't play nice with them.

    They seem like good candidates for Mattis's "annihilation tactics".

    While Trump isn't interested in nation building, I think he is interested in contributing to international order by stomping out the international terrorist quasi states and armies. Use the military for killing.

    I wouldn't be surprised if he arranges to hit the Mexican drug cartels.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Draw down in Somalia?
    Don't forget the crayons!

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