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.
Mark Bowden, author of the book "Black Hawk Down," writes of how terrified the warlord's allies were after the battle: "Some of Aideed's strongest clan allies had fled the city fearing the inevitable American counterattack. The clan's arsenals of RPG's were severely depleted. Others were sending peace feelers, offering to dump Aideed to ward off more bloodshed." They didn't have to bother. Aideed could look forward, shortly after his attack, to becoming part of negotiations for peace.
Clinton's retreat broadcast a signal of weakness around the world. As it happens, al-Qaida operatives had provided assistance to warlord Aideed's forces. "It cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers," Osama bin Laden said of Somalia in his interview with ABC News journalist John Miller in May 1998. "The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat."
After "Black Hawk Down," bin Laden probably asked himself: If 18 dead could shake America, well then, what could be accomplished by killing thousands? There were two lessons for the United States from Somalia: (1) Don't send U.S. troops somewhere unless it's truly important; (2) don't let setbacks scare you into retreat. The Bush administration seems to have learned both, and perhaps the world will eventually get a very different object lesson in U.S. staying power.