Robert Farley doubts that “anything that happens in Somalia is going to have a significant impact on foreign opinion outside of, well, Somalia and Ethiopia.” I think there’s a pretty strong case for that. Nevertheless, it’s important to recall that the group of truly threatening anti-American terrorists in the world is really small. One one level, this should give us considerable comfort. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it appeared plausible that the United States was going to face waves of sustained terror attacks implemented by a reasonably deep pool of people. That turns out not to be the case. On the other hand, it should make us worry. There were very few people interested in mounting large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States and nevertheless that small pool of people was able to pull off a pretty nasty operation.
What there is, however, is a much larger pool of people in some sense drawn to Islamist political movements and to various nationalist causes that involve Muslim populations. Under the circumstances, inserting the United States into disputes that involve Islamists fighting non-Muslim invaders is always very dangerous — it risks slippage of people from the big pool into the small pool. After all, the reason why the small pool is so much smaller than the large pool is that despite widespread dislike of the United States relatively few people believe Osama bin Laden’s message that these localized conflicts are all inextricably linked to the need for jihad against the far enemy. Our actions in the Horn of Africa probably won’t have a big impact on people doing there thing in Cairo or Riyadh or Islamabad but it clearly will have an impact on people living in the Horn.
Now that said, sometimes you do have to back the non-Muslim side in a local conflict. Maybe the Islamist side is threatening some crucial American interests. That, however, isn’t the case here. We simply don’t have any interests in that area that are more important than our interest in trying to avoid a situation where young Somali men cut their teeth for a few years in a guerilla war with Ethiopia and then decide to take the fight to the far enemy.