Rich Lowry

The downing of a U.S. Chinook helicopter during the weekend in Iraq is a gut-check for the nation and for President Bush. The comparisons to the "Black Hawk Down" battle in Somalia in October 1993 are unavoidable, from the enemies' tactic (shoot for the tail rotor), to the celebrations of the natives on the ground, to the heartbreaking death toll (18 in Somalia, 16 now).

What should be different is America's response. The kind of sweaty-palmed cut-and-run sentiment now gripping the Democratic Party over the question of Iraq was personified in the Oval Office 10 years ago by a panicked President Clinton. His hasty retreat after the "Black Hawk Down" battle created an image of American weakness that was noted by Islamic terrorists at the time and that the United States is still working to undo to this day.

In 1993, the forces of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed -- hunted by U.S. forces -- brought down two Black Hawk helicopters and precipitated a vicious daylong firefight. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Clinton managed a burst of bravado, telling an aide: "I believe in killing people who try to hurt you." But soon enough he would be worrying to George Stephanopoulos: "I hope I didn't panic and announce the pullout too soon."

The Clinton administration had chosen in early 1993 to expand the limited humanitarian mission in Somalia it inherited from the first Bush administration into a grander effort to rebuild the strategically marginal country. Madeleine Albright hailed it as an "unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country." These ringing statements were empty since Clinton wasn't willing to pay any price to back them up. The first major blow sent him reeling.

Clinton briefly faked resolve publicly, vowing that "you may be sure that we will do whatever's necessary ... to complete our mission." About a week later he was saying, contradicting his administration's own policy to that point, "It is not our job to rebuild Somalia's society." In a letter to Congress, the White House promptly began rewriting history: "The U.S. military mission is not now nor was it ever one of 'nation-building.'"

Massive reinforcements were sent to Somalia, but only for show. Just days after Aideed's forces had killed 18 Americans, Clinton dispatched former ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley to Mogadishu to tell Aideed that he was off the hook, the United States would no longer seek his capture. Aideed's clan, perhaps taken aback by the American pusillanimity, didn't believe it.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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