Sending Troops to Somalia

November 28, 1992

Most Americans must instinctively welcome the offer the Bus administration made to the United Nations to send up to 30,000 American troops to ensure that food aid gets through to the starving Somalian people. This is what we want to believe the United States stands for in the world -- doing good, saving lives, putting wrong right.

The old rules of humanitarian aid don't apply to Somalia. They assume a government whose sovereignty must be respected. They assume that if food is provided, people will eat. Somalia is patrolled by thugs from rival clans who seize the food, shoot at ships bearing more and force their own people to starve. No government exists. The U.S. has already flown 500 Pakistani troops to Mogadishu. They were preferable to Americans as Islamic and Third World. But they are too few and too constrained by the rules. They sit frustrated at the airport.

For the U.S. to intervene in a swift and large way would have other benefits. It would show a continuing U.S. commitment to stability in the Middle East. This would reassure nervous friends and give pause to such restive disturbers of world peace as the frantically rearming Iran and the ever-cynical dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. In addition to the 82nd Airborne Division on alert at Fort Bragg, N.C., there are the U.S. Marines at sea in the Indian Ocean and the equipment in the Arabian peninsula. This show is do-able.

But there would be substantial dangers. One is that a United Nations operation could be commanded by a general from another country and bickering diplomats in New York. American troops would find themselves shot at and, in the time-honored behavior pattern of troops given impossible assignments, might retaliate against people who hadn't done it.

Those are surmountable problems. The really tough one would be getting out. Anarchy would refill any vacuum. Quagmire may not be the proper image for a desert country, but political quagmire it would be. The U.S. would expect the United Nations, with its Islamic and African members foremost, to lead in restoring civil society. That could be expecting too much.

The best aspect of Mr. Bush's offer is that it refutes the notion of a leadership void in Washington during the transition. President-elect Clinton's briefing by Bush security adviser Brent Scowcroft appears to present a unified American team. Certainly any adventure the Bush administration initiates, the Clinton administration would have to finish, so it is crucial they agree.

Can the U.S. stand by doing nothing while a nation starves because of the brutality of a few thugs in its midst? President Bush and President-elect Clinton will carry broad American public support in saying "no," so long as they deal first with the risks to the American service personnel whose lives they may put on the line.

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