Dissension in U.N. Ranks

July 18, 1993

Because the Somalia military operation is the first in United Nations history under the command and control of the secretary-general, the dispute that has flared up between the world organization and Italy has enormous ramifications.

If the U.N. is to be effective as an instrument of peace enforcement in a world beset with ethnic conflict, it must have authority over the various national contingents wearing its blue berets. But it must exercise this authority wisely if nation-states, ever jealous of their sovereignty, are to allow their troops to be placed in peril.

Unfortunately, in the bitter dispute that has erupted between Italy and the U.N., both sides have acted badly. The U.N. command has allowed what started out as a humanitarian mission to deteriorate into a brutish conflict with a Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, who is now actively calling for the killing of Americans in response to a U.N.-sanctioned U.S. attack on his headquarters that left 57 Somalis dead. The commander of Italian forces in Mogadishu, whose government dislikes this change of mission, has deployed his troops according to orders from Rome, not from the U.N.

The upshot is that U.N. headquarters in New York has demanded the recall of the Italian commander, Gen. Bruno Loi, much to the shock and outrage of Italy. It is now likely that Italian forces, 2,400 strong, will be kept away from the Aidid-controlled area of south Mogadishu and perhaps withdrawn from Somalia altogether.

This imbroglio sends out all the wrong messages. The German government is already under political pressure to get its troops out of Somalia. In the U.S. Congress, powerful Democrats are drafting unwise laws that would require presidents to seek legislative approval even for humanitarian operations. Other nations must be rethinking.

Clearly, the U.N. lacks the resources and structure to carry out all the demands placed upon it by a disorderly world. It needs a redefinition of purpose and some self-restraint. But adequate reforms cannot be put in place unless some kind of consensus emerges among member states about the authority -- make that the sovereignty -- they are willing to relinquish to a U.N. military command that has yet to attain the capability of quick response and prudent policy adjustment.

Strategically, the U.N. is in the right in its dispute with Italy. It cannot function anywhere militarily unless it can assume the obedience of all various national contingents under its command. But on a tactical basis, Italy is understandably aggrieved. With the approval of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. forces under a Turkish general and an American deputy have been assigned an aggressive course that Italy, the former colonial power in Somalia, considers misguided. Italy may be right in this assessment, but its insubordination and the provocative response of the U.N. show how far the world has to go before it has (or even should have) an effective peace force.

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