Somalia: Bush's Last Chapter

December 04, 1992

Americans distracted by the holiday season, the change in administrations and a lagging economy suddenly find their nation about to embark on a new military venture in Somalia, the land of walking skeletons, gun-toting teen-agers and villainous warlords. This latest crisis flared over Thanksgiving when President Bush, reacting to the growing Somalian tragedy, announced the United States was prepared to offer large numbers of troops to deliver food to the starving.

Passage of a United Nations resolution giving Washington effective control over its troops now clears the way for an operation the lame-duck president hopes to conclude by Inauguration Day. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt Somalia will be on President-elect Clinton's agenda from Day One until. . . when? No one knows. With Congress away and Washington in a state of political hiatus, there has been a marked lack of discussion of what the country is getting into.

Mr. Bush, a president notably willing to use U.S. forces, has promised to explain his policies to the country. But he will be speaking only after the Somalia commitment is a fait accompli and only after perfunctory consultation with Congress.

Taken in the face of concerned skepticism in the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA, Mr. Bush's actions are consistent with his talk about a "new world order" -- one in which Cold War obsessions are replaced by international military operations to halt regional aggression (as in the Persian Gulf) or civil war (as in Cambodia) or to avert human catastrophe (as in Somalia).

Somalia breaks new ground in that it involves military risks though no U.S. security interests are at stake. It is almost purely humanitarian, despite African fears of a new kind of U.S.-U.N. colonialism. Americans predictably will give their support for such an altruistic undertaking -- at least in the beginning. But what of the long run?

If U.S. forces pull out in only seven weeks, they will have delivered tons of food and saved uncounted lives. Yet Somalia could revert to chaos if a strong U.N. peacekeeping force is not left in place until the U.N. creates a functioning government that can control warring clans and sub-clans.

It will not be quick or easy, as U.N. operations from Lebanon to Cambodia clearly demonstrate. The international community will

predictably have to confront many other Somalias in a world plagued by overpopulation, the ravishing of resources and the proliferation of weaponry.

To create a world of order out of disorder will require the international use of force -- with the chief initiatives coming from the United States. This, we take it, explains Mr. Bush's boldness as he writes one last chapter to his personal history. On this issue, above all, he wants to be remembered. But before the nation travels too far down this road, the next president will have to determine whether he and the American people accept this burden and are willing to sustain it.

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