The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates earlier this month has brought the troubled African country into the news once again. With the White House’s response to unrest in the Middle East continuing to evolve, it is instructive to note how the United States has tried and failed multiple times to bring order to Somalia. The policies Washington has pursued and the unintended consequences they have produced should serve as a valuable lesson to any intervention that might be considered in Libya or elsewhere in the region. Over at The Skeptics, I outline a number of these lessons after briefly examining the history of U.S. intervention in Somalia:
No doubt U.S. leaders had the best of intentions. But their noble attempts to rescue Somalia spawned a number of unintended consequences. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali‐American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al‐Shabab, or “the youth,” the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government overthrown in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”
…it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West’s interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it.
In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty — conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances. It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.
Click here to read the full post.
I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong’s post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about “why can’t we have better think tanks?” Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.
This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”…this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea‐Sweden axis of mixed economies?
I’m actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba’s failure being “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.” At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.
Regardless of what he’s really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I’m not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation’s grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez‐faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights. This video has more details.
So, yes, Cuba is an example of “the human cost of excessive government.” And so is Somalia.
Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez‐faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.
P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He’s finding out, though, that it’s not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.
- Cato v. Heritage on the Patriot Act, Round II. Today’s topic: “Where are the demonstrated examples of abuses of liberties because of the Patriot Act? Are there any provisions of the law that civil libertarians would find acceptable?”
- Comparing the Great Depression to the current recession: Did we not learn anything?
- Re‐examining the U.S. alliance with Japan: “The current relationship remains trapped in a world that no longer exists.”
- The human cost of delayed economic reform in India: “With earlier reform, 14.5 million more children would have survived, 261 million more Indians would have become literate, and 109 million more people would have risen above the poverty line.”
The two‐decade‐old conflict in Somalia has entered a new phase, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States. To best encourage peace in the devastated country, Washington needs a new strategy that takes into account hard‐learned lessons from multiple failed U.S. interventions.
In a new study, author David Axe argues that Washington should err on the side of nonintervention, and recommends:
The Obama administration should work to build a regional framework for reconciliation, the rule of law, and economic development that acknowledges the unique risks of intervention in East Africa.…Somalia’s best hope for peace is the moderate Islamic government that has emerged from the most recent rounds of fighting, despite early opposition from the United States and its allies. There are ways in which the United States could help Somalia escape its cycle of violence and peacefully encourage progress by working with this former enemy, but Washington should err on the side of nonintervention.
Many people would agree that modern‐day Somalia represents a Hobbesian state of nature. But could anarchy strengthen Somalia’s private sector? This article is certainly very old, but I came across it yesterday and thought the argument would be of interest to political theorists and classical liberals:
…local businesspeople find it easier to do business in a country where there is no government. “There is no need to obtain licences and, in contrast with many other parts of Africa, there is no state‐run monopoly that prevents new competitors setting up. Keeping price low is helped by the absence of any need to pay taxes.”
Of course, the absence of a stable and legitimate political and judicial system, compounded by unyielding internecine violence, means individual and private property rights can never be fully protected and we aren’t likely to see foreign businesses flocking to this chaotic country in the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, the proper role of government is to protect individual rights. But the proper role of our government — abroad — should be limited to instances when our national sovereignty or territorial integrity is at risk. As exemplified in Somalia, America’s attempts to stabilize failed states or pacify foreign populations usually fail, exacerbate already disastrous situations, and are, in principle, gratuitous abuses of American power [See: the calamitous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia].
Yesterday the U.S. House passed by voice vote a resolution praising the captain and crew of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama that was seized by Somali pirates earlier this month. It was a riveting story that ended well for the brave crew and their Captain Richard Phillips, thanks to the work of Navy Seal sharpshooters. But one question that has yet to be adequately discussed is just what that ship was doing over in such dangerous waters off the coast of strife‐torn Somalia.
The answer may surprise you: the U.S. government sent them there.
The ship and its American crew of 20 were delivering U.S.-government food aid to Africa. Under the Food Security Act of 1985, food aid sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development must in most cases be delivered by U.S.-owned, flagged and crewed ships. The law is one of several, including the Jones Act, that are designed to steer business to generally high‐cost U.S. shipping companies.
The laws in that narrow sense have worked: While 95 percent of international cargo arriving in the United States each year is carried by lower‐cost, non‑U.S.-flagged ships, 83 percent of U.S.-sponsored food‐aid cargo is carried by U.S.-flagged ships. [You can read a WTO critique of U.S. cargo shipping preference programs beginning on page 121 of its 2008 review of U.S. trade policy.]
Such laws are anti‐competitive and cost U.S. companies and taxpayers millions of dollars a year in higher shipping costs. But the case of the Maersk Alabama reveals another unintended cost. Almost by definition, food aid goes to regions troubled by war, civil strife and oppressive governments. The Food Security Act essentially requires American civilians to be inserted into dangerous places, which creates yet another inviting target for pirates and another argument for a U.S. military presence.
The U.S. government could ship its official cargo at lower costs, and keep civilian American citizens out of harm’s way, by repealing all its protectionist, anti‐competitive cargo preference laws.