Monday, April 21, 2008

The World Doesn't Need Another Failed State

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki recently said, "Iraq cannot become the new Somalia." How right he is.

Somalia is a mess, and if you saw Blackhawk Down or watched the news any time during the 1990s, you know it's been a mess for years. In fact, to talk about the existence of something called "Somalia" you're really making a leap. Yes, there is an area on the East African coast that is not claimed by Kenya or Ethiopia. But to call that area a "country" implies that it has a "government", and any time you use that word in connection to Somalia, you probably should use quotes. Yes, the transitional government that's in now is recognized by some other national governments; no, they can't keep the lights on, or their people safe.

Of course, what al-Maliki meant is that he doesn't want Iraq to become another failed state. Failed states are the political equivalent of neighborhood garbage dumps. They're breeding grounds for vermin, and no matter how clean you keep your own house, if there's a dump right down the street, you'll still have pest problems. The terrorists who trained in Afghanistan to attack the U.S. on 9/11 were not the first such vermin who've attacked us. The U.S. has dealt with failed states as long as we've been a nation. Ever wondered why the marines sing about "the shores of Tripoli"? Jefferson had about enough of piracy and American sailors being killed or captured by nineteenth-century terrorists based on the lawless North African coast of the Mediterranean. Hence, the first American military action on foreign soil in 1805. Not surprisingly, Somalia is a notorious pirate haven right now.

As a Libertarian, I occasionally have to defend my political philosophy from libertarian fundamentalists who commit the sin of overgeneralization. Some extremists would have us believe that in the absence of government, rational republics always emerge in which individual achievement is unhampered by government interference (could you hear the birds chirping and unicorns prancing while you read that?) But governments exist not just to oppress people's soaring individualism - they do valuable things, like guarantee market transparency and stability, and protect their citizens. Even here in San Francisco during the Gold Rush we had a Wild-West system where the police were so ineffectual, overwhelmed and corrupt that the only option was for people to take out insurance policies at companies with private police forces that would protect you. Guess what? That system sucked. Fortunately for us we now have an effective police force and I'm okay with paying taxes for it.

But San Francisco was part of a large, stable, wealthy entity, and most failed governments aren't so fortunate. What usually happens is that you get "government" of, for, and by whoever has the biggest gun and is less afraid to use it. More often than not, that would be the local religious fanatics. In Afghanistan this was the Taliban. In Somalia, before the Ethiopian military helped to install the current trasitional government, this was the Islamic Courts Union (and they sound like a real fun-loving bunch.) Without continuing external support, Somalia will lapse back into chaos. Like Afghanistan did. And like Iraq will if we leave.

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