The Somali Sinkhole

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

December 04, 1992|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

This is the question before the house: Should the United States commit as many as 30,000 troops to restoring order and protecting humanitarian relief in Somalia?

Any number of influential voices are arguing the affirmative side. Let me take the negative: No! A commitment of the magnitude proposed by President Bush last week cannot be justified.

These are among the arguments for armed intervention. The Washington Post says that Americans ''cannot consign thousands of sick and starving Somalis to slow death.'' The New York Times says it is ''intolerable and unthinkable to remain aloof.'' Jesse Jackson says Somalia provides a glorious opportunity for American soldiers to risk their lives to save an African people.

All of these hawkish sentiments are wrapped in layers of cotton wool: Deadlines must be fixed. Conditions must be imposed. Allies must do their share. U.S. officers must command U.S. soldiers. The affirmative side is optimistic. The operation should take only ''a few hours,'' says an unidentified Pentagon expert. Richard Norton, a professor of political science at West Point, says the objectives could be attained in a few months.

I say baloney. This is not meant to be heartless. It is meant to echo Santayana's famous maxim: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Have we forgotten the lessons of Vietnam? Have we wiped from our memories the problem of Iraq?

True, military experts see no difficult problem in Somalia. The country is in a state of anarchy. Since the coup of January 1991, various ''warlords'' have formed their own ''armies,'' but the warlords are no more than power-hungry politicians, and their armies are ragtag assemblies of gun-happy thieves.

In the expert view, a battalion of Marines could seize the key ports, towns and airfields with little risk. The 92nd Airborne would pour its paratroopers into establishing secure supply lines. Somalia's terrain offers little protection to disorganized hoodlums. Food would be moving in days.

Andre Erdos of Hungary, president of the U.N. Security Council, has a larger vision. He sees a responsibility to restore a whole new government. ''We would need a vast and important structure,'' he says, but he does not say how it would be paid for or who would prop it up.

It's time to raise a few unsentimental questions. How is the national interest of the United States involved in Somalia? The blunt, inescapable answer is that the national interest of the U.S. is not involved in any way in Somalia.

JTC We had a national interest in Grenada in 1983, when the Cold War was hot and another communist base in the Caribbean was seen as intolerable.

We had a national interest in Iraq in 1991. We had to prevent Saddam Hussein from seizing control of nearly half the world's oil and building his own atomic weapons.

When such clear national interests are at stake, and all recourses short of war have been exhausted, of course we send in the troops. That is why we maintain them. No such justification can be advanced in the matter of Somalia.

Second question: What do we do after our armed forces complete their initial task? Do we pack up our tanks and go home? Or must we and others maintain an army of occupation for months or years to come? Are we to put in place the ''vast and important governmental structure'' of President Erdos' desire?

Third question: What precedent would be set by intervention? Somalia is suffering dreadfully. Two million humans reportedly have died from drought and anarchy. Pictures of starving children tear at the heart. But other countries also are suffering dreadfully. If the preservation of human life is a vital interest in Soma- lia, it is equally a vital interest in Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire, Cambodia. Before wading into a swamp, we must look to the other side.

The better course is to stay out of the swamp entirely. Eventually one warlord will kill off the rest; one gang will accede to power. Eventually the rains will come and eventually Somalia will emerge from its nightmare. It is just as the philosopher said: Eventually, this too will pass.

All I am arguing is that there is a time and place for the use of U.S. troops. Now is not the time and Somalia is not the place.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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