Fifteen glorious years without a central government in Somalia! It was typically described as a “power vacuum,” as if the absence of a taxing, regulating, coercing junta is an unnatural state of affairs, one that cannot and should not last.
Well, now this “vacuum” is being filled, with an Islamic militia claiming to be in control of the capital, Mogadishu.
But US officials may rue the day they hoped for a new government in this country. The dictator Mohammed Siad Barre fell in 1991. US troops went in with the idea that they would restore order, but thank goodness they did not. Bill Clinton’s idea fell into shambles after 18 soldiers were killed by warlords. That seems like a low number in light of the Iraq disaster, but to Clinton’s credit, he pulled out.
Since that time, Somalia has done quite well for itself, thank you (BBC: “Telecoms Thriving in Lawless Somalia“). But there was one major problem. The CIA couldn’t come to terms with it. The US government likes to deal with other governments, whether it is paying them or bombing them or whatever. What makes no sense to central planners in DC is a country without a state.
So the US continued to talk about a “power vacuum” and secretly funneled money to its favorite warlords — a fact which the US officially denies but which has nonetheless been widely reported. Officials who have criticized the policy have been shut up and reassigned.
Aside from the downside that comes with the creation of any government, the continuous effort to fund warlords created a problem: it left open the possibility that at some point someone would cobble together the resources to claim to be a government. The mere prospect kept the Islamic militias worried and on edge. Finally, they prevailed.
As the International Herald Tribune says: “U.S. support for secular warlords, who joined under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, may have helped to unnerve the Islamic militias and prompted them to launch pre-emptive strikes.”
That’s hardly surprising. How many times have we seen the US establishment back something to the hilt only to discover that the plot backfires by inspiring opposition? This is one of many problems of the US government. Its crackdowns usually end up working as advertisements (think of drugs, for example). All throughout Latin America, we’ve seen this happen with politics: US support is often the kiss of death. Especially in a country like Somalia, with so many factions, US backing is something to hide because it can only fire up the opposition.
But governments don’t think dynamically about the long-run consequences of their actions. They figure that if they want a particular policy, they only need to pay for it. It is a very shortsighted viewpoint — and a dangerous one in political terms.
Now the US has a bigger problem than ever: the possibility that a new Taliban has been created in Somalia. Now, you might not think that this is a problem, given that the US overthrew a secular government in Iraq and now provides security for an Iraqi regime that includes Islamic law as part of its governing mandate. But consistency is not the hallmark of US foreign policy.
Still, the creation of a new state inspires us to think about fundamental matters of political economy.
What is to be gained by the creation of a state? Well, consider what a state does. First, it taxes, which means taking from the people and giving to the government, which then gives money to its friends. Second, it regulates, meaning that government tells people to do things they would not otherwise do. Third, it creates a central bank to water down the value of money. Fourth, it builds jails in which to put people who disobey, including political enemies.
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.
The only people who are rejoicing in Somalia today are those who prefer dictatorship to puppet government. But the real victims are average people, who were doing just fine by scraping by. Adding a government to the mix will do nothing but create more trouble for everyone.
So here is a good rule. When a government falls, don’t call it a “power vacuum.” Call it a zone of liberty and be done with it. If some group claims to be the government, the proper answer should be: “Yeah, and I’m the Duke of Windsor. Get a life.”