Changing the rules

Anthony Lewis

December 08, 1992|By Anthony Lewis

WHEN he decided to send an American force to Somalia under U.N. auspices, President Bush made no great public announcement. The news emerged in almost a whisper. But the decision in fact reflected a profound change in the assumptions -- the ground rules -- for military intervention abroad.

The classic reasons for U.S. military action are to protect national security or the lives of particular Americans. Thus the official rationale for the landing on Grenada was to rescue American medical students. The invasion of Panama, designed to overthrow and capture Manuel Noriega, was covered by a story of threats to American citizens.

Somalia demands something very different: peacemaking. The U.N. peacekeepers already there have been powerless to operate against warring gangs equipped with heavy weapons. The American force, and others that join it, will be there to silence and preferably to seize those guns, so relief workers can do their jobs.

The reason for forceful intervention now is an urgent need to save lives. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have already died from the starvation that has followed political chaos and gang warfare. As many as one million more might be doomed if the present situation were allowed to continue.

In short, the United Nations and the United States are intervening in Somalia to prevent an internal slaughter. And that represents a great change in the premises of international conduct.

This is in fact the second time in recent years that military force has been used to prevent mass killing inside a country. The first was in northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war, when the United States stopped Saddam Hussein's killing of the Kurds and effectively set up a protected Kurdish zone.

The action in northern Iraq, like that in Somalia, was a response by Mr. Bush to a humanitarian outcry. Pictures of Kurdish refugees huddled in the snowy mountains, and of emaciated Somali children, produced much critical comment about what was seen as Mr. Bush's indifference.

What Mr. Bush has not done so far is to explain his actions -- to offer the public a thoughtful basis for understanding this new kind of intervention. And that is necessary.

The need for explanation was indicated by the negative reaction of Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. He said the dispatch of troops to Somalia was not "in our national interest." Military leaders, he said, "don't know what the mission is."

Defining the mission will indeed be tricky. Mr. Bush has said it will be brief, but military leaders seem doubtful about that. And what do the planners envisage happening after foreign forces leave?

Considerations of that kind will attend any such operation. They show that it is not possible, or wise, to lay down a general rule for intervention. The lines must rather be drawn in case after case, based on the particular needs and risks.

But it is clear now, as northern Iraq and Somalia show, that a new element has entered the calculation. In a world without menace from another superpower, the U.S. military must be ready to act against mass murder -- which breeds hate and revenge, menaces stability and thus does engage what Rep. Murtha called "our national interest."

Mr. Bush can make that case. Even those critical of him know that in the Persian Gulf crisis he brilliantly marshaled American opinion, Congress and foreign governments for intervention against Saddam Hussein. His arguments then were both strategic and moral -- as they would be now. He has already started talking with members of Congress and foreign leaders.

Of course the case that cries out for application of the new doctrine of intervention is Bosnia. There the Serbs are carrying out a deliberately genocidal policy. To let that policy succeed -- as it is succeeding -- is to threaten European stability and menace humane values everywhere.

I still find it hard to believe that Mr. Bush is going to end his term of office with the burden of Bosnian slaughter on his conscience -- and on his historical record. But if he does, it will be up to Bill

Clinton quickly to lay out the new basis for intervention. It would be none too soon for him to do it in his inaugural address.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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