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Monday, April 13, 2009

USA use of force

By David Ignatius
Just as the policy mavens were beginning to debate elaborate political-military strategies for dealing with the Somali pirates, we were reminded that the best solution is sometimes the simplest and most direct -- in this case, a sniper’s rifle

The Navy seals waited stealthily on board the USS Bainbridge for the right moment, and then: pow! Nightmare over. I don’t mean to overdo the gung-ho enthusiasm, but this was a correct and proportionate use of military power. Given the brutality of the pirates’ hostage-taking, and the threat they increasingly posed to maritime traffic in the Gulf of Oman, some decisive action was necessary. And it was taken.

The larger point (there’s always one of those lurking in op-ed land) is that we too often use a howitzer -- or an F-16 -- when a sniper rifle should be the weapon of choice. That is, the United States as a nation tends to favor big, direct deployment of military power when something more limited and discrete would make better sense. That’s one lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan. Invading foreign countries willy-nilly should be an option of last resort; and as we’ve discovered, once the United States gets in, it often can’t get out easily without suffering a serious strategic reversal.

These issues will come to a head over the next few weeks, as the Obama administration tries to frame a Somalia policy. An early sign of this debate was the story in last Saturday’s Washington Post by Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung about the administration’s review of policy options against the Muslim militia known as al-Shabab, which dominates the lawless land from which the pirates emerged.

The rag-tag nature of this “insurgency” is conveyed by its name, which in Arabic means “the boys.” Despite al-Shabab's growing power, it’s still closer to a youth gang than a strategic threat to the United States. It poses a menace, to be sure, in the way gun-toting bad guys do in ungoverned spaces anywhere on the planet. But it shouldn’t prompt a big, overt military deployment, or even those “surgical strikes” that air force commanders like to talk about.
This is the kind of problem for which U.S. Special Forces and the covert operators of the Central Intelligence Agency were created. They can move quickly and quietly to alter the balance of power on the ground, just as they have done at sea. They should be subject to close congressional oversight, in secret. The less the rest of the world sees the American footprint in Somalia, the better.

By David Ignatius April 13, 2009; 12:46 PM ET Category: Ignatius Previous: Going Way Too Far to Help the Homeless Next: The Maersk Alabama Captain vs. Sully Sullenberger Main Index
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