What Is the U.N. To Do?

June 16, 1993

Somalia serves as the latest warning that even the best-motivated foreign interventions can lead to bloodshed, unforeseen entanglements and even the danger of defeat. As a test case for United Nations resolve and capability, it ranks with much larger conflicts because this is the first time the U.N. secretary general has taken official command and control of an enforcement action under provisions of the U.N. charter.

Any pretense that the world organization could avoid taking sides in Somalia's internal struggles dissipated after American and Pakistani forces under the U.N. flag launched a full-scale effort last weekend to oust the most powerful warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, who had ambushed Pakistani troops earlier.

Statements about General Aidid now issuing from Washington have a belligerent edge that contrasts with the high humanitarian goals set out when U.S. troops landed to feed starving Somalis. If even a backward little country like Somalia turns into a quagmire for the United Nations, what chances are there for stability in a world torn by ethnic strife and civil war? Good question. Yet what are the alternatives? Better question.

Bosnia, Cambodia, Angola and other hot spots are proof that the U.N. is extended as never before. Under the leadership of Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali, the policy emphasis is changing from peace-keeping to enforcement. It was he who pleaded with American leaders last December to disarm the warlords. But Washington wanted in and wanted out with as few casualties as possible.

Now AC-130 gunships and Cobra helicopters are hammering General Aidid's headquarters in Mogadishu as the warlord hurls invective at this country. In retrospect, the U.S. might have been better advised to stay out if it wasn't really ready to take the measures necessary for success.

This surely should be an object lesson as the larger powers spin around trying to figure out what to do about the continuing agony in Bosnia. President Clinton still stands ready to bomb the military installations of the Bosnian Serbs and channel weapons to the Bosnian Muslims, if only the British, French and Russians would go along. In light of U.N. weakness and disarray among the allies, however, it is worth asking whether the Clinton policy -- or indeed any policies yet canvassed -- has an end as well as a beginning.

Mr. Boutros Ghali would have the U.N. forces in many places -- even though his organization has no military structure worthy of the name. He would sponsor interventions -- even though policy directions are not thought through. This perhaps is his job, as he defines it. But the job of the big powers is to decide if they will provide the U.N. with the means to carry out an expanded mandate or reduce its mission accordingly. The present mix of bombast and muddle won't work. Overwhelming force may eliminate General Aidid, but foes await who will not be so easily vanquished.

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