With 1,800 Marines due to land in Somalia at dawn tomorrow, what President Bush has begun will be President-elect Clinton's to finish. Even if some withdrawals are completed by Inauguration Day, if for no other purpose than to fulfill Mr. Bush's self-imposed timetable, uniformed U.S. military personnel are likely to be in the Horn of Africa for a long, long time. It will be Mr. Clinton's task to define their extended mission, decide when it is over, determine whether Somalia is to be a prototype for U.S. interventions elsewhere and, if the need arises, conclude when and where he will make new overseas commitments.
The next president, whose campaign was based on the domestic-policy motto, "The Economy, Stupid," is likely to be bedeviled from the outset by wrenching foreign policy decisions, some of which may not wait. Bosnia, Russia, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Cambodia -- the list goes on.
As the Somali precedent unfolds, Mr. Clinton must wonder what he will do if mid-winter photos of terrible deprivation in Bosnia stir up pressure for a greater role in the Balkan conflict, or if a huge Haitian boatlift he himself encouraged impels U.S. action to overthrow the island's illegal dictatorship. The president-elect's transition foreign policy adviser, Samuel Berger, while reiterating Clinton's support for the Somali mission, tried yesterday to limit expectations. "The fact that we can't do everything in the world," he contended, "doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything in the world."
Another "fact": America's role as the world's only superpower is likely to put it under pressure to do some things it would rather not do. With power flowing back to the presidency and away from a Congress that finds post-Cold War problems too complex, Mr. Clinton will have to make choices unlike any that faced his predecessors.
The incoming president has already made his first presidential decision. It was not in the economic area that preoccupies most of his advisers but, symbolically, in the foreign policy field with his unstinting support of the Somali intervention. When he was asked yesterday by Chicago students about the eventual withdrawal of troops, he sidestepped, saying, "Let's let the mission be carried out. We can talk about that [withdrawal] later."
"Later" means after he has moved into the White House. But already, Somali warlords and international aid workers are agitating for a long-range U.S. presence so that chaos and anarchy, if once quelled, will not return when responsibility is passed to a United Nations peacekeeping force.
All of which suggests the U.S. mission in Somalia may in time have to be expanded into nation-building -- the creation of a new government and restoration of a shattered economic and social system. It is Mr. Clinton's destiny to determine the size, cost and limits of this mission even as he faces foreign policy issues even more daunting.