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18 September 2014
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Out of Nowhere?

By Professor Lawrence Freedman
The US response

It is not known whether members of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation were involved in the firefight in Mogadishu but his people were certainly in Somalia at the time. Bin Laden later remarked to CNN's Peter Arnett how they had been surprised by the 'low spiritual morale' of the Americans. He noted how 'the largest power on earth' left 'after some resistance from powerless, poor, unarmed people.'

'...the idea that casualty intolerance is the greatest political vulnerability of the US... became a commonplace of international politics.'

This lesson - that the American aversion to casualties would encourage them to keep clear of hostile places - was apparently confirmed by the cautious approached adopted by the Clinton Administration thereafter, whenever the question of intervention in overseas wars came up. Either they stayed away - as in Rwanda in 1994 - or they confined their involvement to air power - as in Kosovo in 1999. Even when US embassies in East Africa were attacked by the al-Qaeda organisation in August 1998 the American response was merely to launch cruise missiles against Bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.

The effect of these events was to reinforce the idea that casualty intolerance is the greatest political vulnerability of the US, to the point where it became a commonplace of international politics. There was obviously no way that the US could be defeated in a straight fight on a conventional battlefield, as the Gulf War of 1991 had emphatically demonstrated. If their adversaries wanted to persuade the Americans to back off from any undesirable stance on an issue, they had to find some way of killing them on a significant scale. Since, largely as a result of Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia, the American armed forces were wary of getting drawn into guerrilla campaigns, then a logical objective would be to hurt any Americans, wherever they could be found.

Published: 2002-08-22

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