Nonetheless, if Islamist insurgents capture Mogadishu, foreign-policy hawks in the Republican Party and right-wing commentators will seize on the setback to claim that the Obama administration "lost Somalia" to al Qaeda. And the last thing the Obama administration can afford is to give its conservative opponents an easy opportunity to portray it as weak on defense. Questions would be raised about why the administration failed to provide more robust and direct military support to the new, moderate Islamic TFG coalition that took over in the first half of 2009, following the New Year withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces that had been securing the previous TFG government's tenuous hold on power.
But that line of attack would be a serious misreading of Somalia. If the TFG does indeed fall, it will not be for lack of support from the United States. The new administration acted judiciously in the first half of 2009, carefully calibrating U.S. support to the TFG. Many expected the new, moderate Islamic TFG to garner more internal support and legitimacy by presenting itself as a genuine Somali solution -- a broad-based, moderate Islamic government that sought peace both within Somalia and with regional neighbors. Had the Obama administration smothered it with foreign aid and military backing, the TFG would have been seen as a puppet of the West, a charge that al-Shabab would quickly have seized upon to discredit the already fragile government
If the TFG is overrun, it will not be Obama's fault, but rather because the TFG's new leadership dropped the ball and failed to build the necessary coalitions to outmaneuver a radical Islamist movement that appeared to be in deep trouble only six months ago.
Even if the United States wanted to dive into the Somalia crisis head first, the truth is that it has a very limited ability to shape short-term outcomes in Mogadishu. As the world has learned from watching other attempts to fight the war on terrorism elsewhere, the hard work of combating radicalism, promoting state-building, pushing for reconciliation, and encouraging political moderation is impossible without minimally dedicated and competent local partners. Given the TFG's dismal performance in the first half of 2009, there are serious questions about whether the transitional authority is really up to that task.
The terrible historical irony is that the United States now risks seeing a replay of the political fallout that followed the 1993 U.S. mission in Somalia. Then, outgoing President George H.W. Bush bequeathed a dangerous mess in Somalia to the incoming Bill Clinton administration. George W. Bush did the same: leaving office when Somalia's chaos was about to ramp up and U.S. support would once again be paramount. Clinton pulled U.S. forces out of Somalia just a few months after the notorious "Black Hawk Down" incident saw 18 U.S. soldiers killed, and the American public recoiled from foreign intervention for a decade.
Today, the Obama foreign-policy team must resist the temptation to treat Somalia as a political problem if equally dire consequences are to be avoided. Anything less will yield paper solutions and empty gestures designed to preempt Republican attacks. Somalia has had many such "solutions" before. After two decades of war, what it needs now is long-term management of a messy crisis that, for the moment at least, presents options that range only from bad to worse.