Clinton and Somalia


December 14, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- How much should Bill Clinton support the Somalian operation? Minimally. He cannot challenge it, of course. That would call into question the president's authority while he is still in office -- a thing wrong in itself and politically disastrous.

Mr. Clinton can hardly attack the office he means shortly to hold. He is right when he says there is only one president at a time. Any carping or sniping from the sidelines would look bad, not only in itself but because this is a mission of mercy to people whose plight has rightly moved hearts all over the world.

On the other hand: To take responsibility before one can take control is a surrender of maneuverability. The pressures for a president- elect to support a president during the shaky transition time -- when there is a division of power in fact though not in law, the president-elect wielding de facto influence beyond his de jure authority -- have always been strong. But the best presidents have resisted such pressures.

Lincoln is the prime instance. In his day the transition was much longer -- Lincoln had to stand by from November to March while the nation was falling apart, secession was occurring, and President Buchanan was out of his depth. Many people were trying to strike compromises, to adopt emergency measures for holding off division of the country. They asked for Lincoln's help. He strongly (though quietly) refused it.

Some, including Henry Adams, thought this was a selfish response; that Lincoln seemed more interested in preserving his own options than in preserving the union. The so-called Crittenden Amendments failed to pass, though Lincoln tried to pursue one of them (without success) when he took office.

The next best example is Franklin Roosevelt. He too had the long transition -- though he was the last one. The floundering of the economy during the long interregnum between Hoover and HTC Roosevelt convinced the nation that it could no longer afford to wait so long for the new president's inauguration; it was moved up from March to January in 1933.

That was too late, of course, to help the nation during the transition it had just experienced. Hoover's hands were tied, just as Buchanan's had been.

Hoover tried to get Roosevelt to back him on emergency measures for closing and firming up the failing banks -- exactly what Roosevelt would do when he came into office. But Roosevelt refused.

It is not enough to have a good plan. One must implement it properly. When a man cannot be in charge of the implementation, reacting to dangers and adverse developments on his own responsibility, he should not be saddled with the consequences of another man's actions. The lines of authority must be clear, if full responsibility is to be assumed.

In the case of Somalia, Mr. Clinton was already on record as agreeing in principle to intervention. But there are enough problems in President Bush's prosecution of this scheme to make it wise for Mr. Clinton to hold back from full or enthusiastic endorsement. Why did Mr. Bush wait so long before reacting with full deployment? Why the all-or-nothing approach? (Or, rather, why a nothing-then-all approach?) Are other nations truly going to support us? Have we overmilitarized our intrusion?

If errors have been committed, Mr. Clinton will be in a better position for correcting them if he is not a kind of joint initiator of this fateful move. He should remember Lincoln, and remember Roosevelt, and hold back.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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