Lame-Duck Soup

Photo: David Turnley / Getty Images

*From the January 4, 1993 issue of New York Magazine.


One of George Bush’s final contributions to history will no doubt be his redefinition of the lame-duck presidency.  Confounding the assumption that a sitting president who has lost an election is incapable of accomplishing anything during the eleven weeks between his defeat and the inauguration of his successor except pushing through a few last-minute judicial appointments, Bush has been working at a frenzied pace.

He’s pressing Russian president Boris Yeltsin to sign a START II treaty before Clinton’s inauguration.  He’s collaborating with British prime minister John Major on efforts to enforce the ban against Serbian military flights over Bosnia.  His aides have leaked the notion that he may even employ U.S. forces in the former Yugoslav republic.  And, of course, American soldiers continue to arrive in Somalia, which Bush will visit at New Year’s.

Never before, in fact, has a lame-duck president initiated a military operation on such a scale in the waning days of his presidency, one that, despite Bush’s initial hope of having the troops home by January 20, will continue well into the Clinton administration.  That is not the only unprecedented feature of Operation Restore Hope.  It has also been portrayed as the first truly selfless and humanitarian enterprise ever conducted by the American military.  “Morally, a failure to respond to massive human catastrophe like that in Somalia would scar the soul of our nation,” Bush said in a mid-December speech at Texas A & M University.

The genuinely charitable impulse to do something about Somalia has tended to chill debate on Bush’s plan, since anyone who dares criticize it exposes himself or herself to the charge of being heartless, barbarically indifferent to the images of starving people.  But an argument can be made that the entire exercise is ill conceived and even somewhat cynical.

After all, the famine in Somalia has been going on for a year and a half now.  Bush could have done something about it months ago.  The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, according to sources, has been urging action since last spring.  If Bush had moved earlier, he could have saved some of the 300,000 Somalis who, according to the U.N., have died because of the famine.

Bush’s aides have said that if he had intervened before the election, his motivation would have seemed political.  It is only because the election is over, they argue, that the president has been free to act in such an altruistic fashion.  What this explanation implies is that Bush did not want to go into Somalia before the election because such a step would have been perceived as a ploy to help him get re-elected—the much-anticipated “October surprise.”  And had it been perceived as a ploy, it would actually have hurt his chances for re-election.  In other words, Bush decided not to undertake a genuine humanitarian mission during the campaign because to do so would have made him appear cynical.

But much of the criticism Bush might have provoked would have existed in a framework constructed by Bush himself.  It was Bush who declared he would do whatever it took to get re-elected, whose aides urged allies to discount as hyperbolic statements he made in the heat of the campaign, who essentially abdicated the presidency when he went into “campaign mode” after the Republican Convention.  While he was in campaign mode, he indicated later, much of what he said and did was not to be taken seriously.  Aware that we shouldn’t trust him because he was merely trying to get re-elected, Bush felt he could not undertake anything that required our trust.

The distinction Bush has always made between campaigning and governing created a kind of political schizophrenia.  Had he not been inhibited by it, Bush might have announced to the nation months ago that, although we were in the midst of an aggressively fought presidential election, Somalia’s suffering took precedence.  He could have said that American troops were needed there immediately and that to avoid any appearance of political maneuvering, he would like to invite Bill Clinton to the White House to review the plans for Somalia’s rescue, making it a bi-partisan effort and ensuring continuity for the policy in the event Clinton was elected.  Anticipating and defusing the criticism that intervention in Somalia was politically motivated could have been a political masterstroke, investing him with the stature he so obviously lacked during the fall campaign.  And it would have put him back on his best terrain—foreign policy.

Radicals on both the left and the right have criticized Operation Restore Hope for a variety of reasons.  Bush is supposedly trying, before he steps down, to replace the image of himself as a nasty but incompetent campaigner with that of a noble statesman.  The secret purpose of intervention, according to one preposterous anti-capitalist theory, is to create another market for American agricultural exports.  The operation, others charge, is just an excuse to allow the Pentagon—specifically, the Marines—to display its value in the post-Cold War world at a time when Clinton is beginning to look for places to cut the federal budget.  Finally, the rescue mission is seen as an attempt to divert attention from White House involvement in the search of Clinton’s passport files.

But others have argued that whatever its motives, the mission is still justified because it will save Somalis dying of hunger.  The main problem in Somalia, however, is not a lack of food.  It is the social chaos that prevents food from being distributed.  U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali realizes this, which is why he has repeatedly urged Bush to order that Somalia be disarmed.

The White House has resisted such a difficult, controversial operation.  It would doubtless be fiercely resisted by the Somali warlords and could lead to serious loss of American life.  There is also the fear that using the military as an actual force rather than as a charitable, if armed, relief agency could result in a Vietnam-style quagmire.  But the real problem in Somalia is not that American troops risk getting bogged down there.  If things go badly, they will simply pull out, as the Marines did in Lebanon in 1984 after 220 of them were killed in a terrorist bombing.

The real problem is that, as the name of the exercise indicates, it is Operation Restore hope, not Operation Restore Order.  And hope is often illusory.  To appease Colin Powell and the Pentagon officials who have insisted on a precise mission with clearly defined goals, Bush agreed that the assignment for the troops would be to go in, distribute food to those who were starving, and then pull out when U.N. peacekeepers show up.  But in his eagerness to give the military a goal it could accomplish without too much trouble, he ended up giving them one—and this is where the Vietnam analogy is relevant—that fails to deal with the political problems that made military intervention necessary in the first place.

Bush was probably correct in believing that armed intervention in Somalia had to be led by the United States.  But this only highlights the predicament.  The U.N. is short of funds, overextended, and has never successfully stopped warfare on its own, as opposed to keeping a peace brokered by others.

Television footage of U.S. soldiers passing out food will no doubt enable Bush to leave office on a positive note; a Wall Street Journal poll already shows his approval ratings rising.  U.S. envoy Robert Oakley has an ambitious if arguably naïve plan to negotiate peace among the warring clans and rebuild the country’s police force and infrastructure.  But even now in some Somali towns, once the soldiers distribute the food and pull out, the bandits simply re-emerge.  When the futility of this process becomes apparent to everyone a few months from now, it will be up to Clinton to make the difficult decision about whether the soldiers should take the dangerous and sure-to-be-unpopular step of actually disarming the country or simply return home without solving the problems that caused the famine.

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