U.S. Intervention in Libya and the Specter of “Black Hawk Down”

For every minute that Muammar Qaddafi remains in power...

For every hour that ticks by during America's military operations in Libya...

During every sortie...

An horrific set of images haunts official Washington.

They are the pictures of Somali rebels dragging the corpses of U.S. soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993.

Certainly the specter of Vietnam agonizes Washington as the benchmark for military conflicts gone horribly wrong. Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964 in response to attacks on U.S. vessels. But over time, the resolution proved to be the touchstone of mission creep. It constructed a gateway for the U.S. to get bogged down in an unwinnable conflict which cost tens of thousands of lives. That explains why Vietnam torments policymakers today every time U.S. forces are involved overseas.

But it was that harrowing day in downtown Mogadishu nearly 18 years ago that bedevils lawmakers, generals and administration-types even more now than Vietnam.

Which is precisely why everyone is wringing their hands about whether or not the U.S. is at "war" with Libya. It's why House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) fired off a letter to President Obama Wednesday afternoon, not ten minutes after Air Force One returned from a trip to South America and Latin America. The speaker demanded answers as to the "objectives of this mission, what our national security interests are, and how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East?"

It's why some lawmakers, ranging from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, have criticized the president for failing to adequately consult with Congress before committing U.S. forces to this operation in Libya.

"I can only conclude that your order to the United States Armed Forces to attack the nation of Libya on March 19, 2011 is in direct violation of the War Powers Resolution and constitutes a usurpation of Constitutional powers clearly and solely vested in the United States Congress and is accordingly unlawful and unconstitutional," wrote Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) in a unilateral missive to Mr. Obama.


October 3, 1993 will forever be remembered as the day conventional warfare fundamentally changed. It ushered in a new era of asymmetric warfare, a little less than eight years before 9-11. And with the advent of CNN and the ability to telecast news around the world 24/7, that day also forever altered the lens through which war is viewed.

On October 3, 1993, U.S. Delta Force troops and Army Rangers attempted to capture henchmen associated with Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. By that point, U.S. troops had been involved in Somalia for nearly a year. Much of the country was starving, with gangs and warlords like Aidid hording the supplies.

In December, 1992, President George H.W. Bush was in the waning days of his term, having lost the previous month to Bill Clinton. But under the auspices of United Nations Resolution 794, the U.S. joined international forces "to use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief in Somalia."

U.S. troops entered Somalia on December 8, 1992 to help secure the Mogadishu airport so humanitarian relief flights and could deliver supplies to the ravaged country. In conjunction with the War Powers Resolution, President Bush met with a number of key members of Congress on December 10 to brief them on the Somalia mission. Mr. Bush indicated that American forces would only remain long enough to secure the country for relief efforts. U.S. troops would then turn over peacekeeping operations to the United Nations.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution asks the president to notify Congress within two days of committing troops abroad. Unless Congress declares war, the War Powers Resolution limits the deployment of forces to two months, followed by a 30 day withdrawal period.

But U.S. troops remained in Somalia. Into January when Clinton assumed office. And then into the late spring of 1993 as hostilities intensified and U.N. peacekeepers were slaughtered.

In June and July, 1993, President Clinton detailed to Congress the actions of a "U.S. Quick Reaction Force" that he dispatched in an effort to bolster the U.N.

"Aidid's forces were responsible for the worst attack on U.N. peacekeepers in three decades. We could not let it go unpunished," said Clinton.

Over this timeframe, both the House and Senate approved different resolutions that could better clarify America's role in Somalia. But neither body could come to a unified agreement as to what the U.S. should be doing.

So troops remained. And the mission creeped.

Former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), then the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared that August 4 could be viewed as the day the War Powers Resolution died. Gilman noted that fighting heated up in early June 1993 and two months later, U.S. troops didn't have a clear mandate to stay since Congress had not declared war. Finally in September, both the House and Senate approved a measure that mandated President Clinton report to Congress by October 15 what the mission was in Somalia. Lawmakers also required the president to ask for Congressional approval for the military operation by mid-November.

And then came October 3, an iconic day in the history of U.S. military commitments overseas. It's a day which ultimately revealed the Constitutional breach between the legislative and executive branches over who is responsible for sending troops abroad.

It is said you can't be "a little bit pregnant." But October 3, 1993 revealed that a country could be "a little bit at war."

On that fated day in Mogadishu, Aidid's loyalists pinned down American forces for 16 hours in a brutal firefight. An rocket propelled grenade brought down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter with the callsign Super 6-1. 18 American service members were killed. Nearly 80 soldiers were hurt. Helicopter Pilot Michael Durant was captured and held hostage for two weeks. And then Aideed's militias dragged the corpses of American service members through the labyrinthine Mogadishu streets. TV cameras captured the images and beamed them live around the globe on CNN.

"How could this happen?" President Clinton is reported to have said once he saw the images, according to Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down."


The turning point for the United States in the "Black Hawk Down" incident centers on the ability of non-state actors to unleash non-linear warfare methods in order to bring the world's only Superpower to its knees. The episode ignited a political firestorm in Washington as lawmakers crowed about how the administration never justified the mission. Meantime, Capitol Hill bore just as much of the blame for never fully intervening or halting the funding of U.S. operations in Somalia.

And then there was the media impact. The televised images of a mob cavorting through the dusty streets with the bodies of U.S. service members suddenly made the issue real back home. That spurred lawmakers and the public to ask what the U.S. was doing there.

The late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), then chairman of the Appropriations Committee (which controls the federal purse strings), declared it was time for Congress to end what he termed "cops-and-robbers operations." Former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) exclaimed that the U.S. shouldn't risk troops when the objective is murky.

"Can we justify more funerals of young Americans based on a policy we cannot define?" asked Gramm at the time.

Army Sgt. Randy Shughart was one of the Americans killed that day in Mogadishu. Later that year, Shughart's father Herbert refused to shake President Clinton's hand when the Pentagon posthumously awarded his son the Medal of Honor.

"The blame for my son's death rests with the White House and with you. You are not fit to command," Shughart snarled at the president during the ceremony.

This all contributed to a growing narrative about President Clinton. He won election with less than half of the popular vote. He didn't serve in Vietnam and some viewed him as a draft dodger. Chastened from his experiences with Somalia, many believe the Somalia experience made Clinton timorous when he failed to take action to curb the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In the fall of 1993, Congress voted to cut off funding for the Somalia operation. It was the first time Congress had nipped money for U.S. military action abroad since it voted to defund the Vietnam war in 1973.


Nearly 18 years later, missteps surrounding the U.S. mission in Somalia serve as the hallmark of a military operation gone awry and why Congress is sweating bullets right now over Libya.

Earlier this week, one senior aide said that lawmakers were skittish. But everyone would be okay, so long as there were no "Scott O'Grady situations." That's a reference to Scott O'Grady. He was an American pilot who was shot down by the Serbs and survived in the wild for about a week in 1995 while helping NATO enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia.

That same night, a U.S. fighter crashed in Libya. Both crew members survived.

"That's an example of how things can go south really fast," muttered another senior Congressional aide. "Which is why you want Congressional authorization. That way everyone has skin in the game."

Congress is still engaged in a protracted fight over spending bills for the current fiscal year. If expenditures for the Libya operation exceed $1 billion, it's believed that the White House would have to ask Congress for a supplemental spending bill. In other words, as Democrats and Republicans scrap over current spending cuts, imagine how sordid the battle could become if Congress is asked to approve extra money amid the current debate.

"Before we spend any money abroad, I want to know how much it's going to cost us," said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) in a statement. "It's important that the president give us and all American taxpayers an accurate answer on this issue."

Congress is out of session this week. But the Obama Administration plans to convene a special intelligence briefing for lawmakers when they return next week. Meantime, lawmakers from both parties are demanding why there wasn't adequate consultation.

"I think there's going to be a showdown on this issue next week," said Tom McClintock.

If McClintock is right, it's because lawmakers fear mission creep. They fear an operation in Libya that they don't understand. They fear another Somalia, just like that fateful day in downtown Mogadishu nearly 18 years ago.

It's all because no one is entirely certain what the U.S. is doing in Libya. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is clear that only Congress can "declare war."

But what's vexing is which branch has the final say when the nation is "a little bit at war."

Which is precisely how many on Capitol Hill view the current engagement.