If Somalia, Why Not Bosnia?

August 25, 1993

The four young Foreign Service officers who have resigned to protest U.S. policy in Bosnia acted in the finest tradition of their calling. They might have been better advised, however, to ask for transfer to the Somalia desk where a sobering experience would have awaited them on the pitfalls of U.S. intervention in conflicts overseas -- especially conflicts involving peoples and cultures only dimly understood and not adaptable to the prompt, casualty-free solutions demanded by public opinion.

This country went into Somalia last December for the highest of humanitarian motives: to save thousands from starvation resulting from clan wars unleashed with the fall of a hated dictatorship. Yes, the hungry were fed and in May American troops supposedly marched away with a job well done. Yet today, 1,200 U.S. troops under United Nations command are engaged in deadly skirmishes in Somalia as they attempt to hunt down a "criminal" clan leader, Mohamed Farah Aidid, who only a few months ago was consulting amiably with American diplomats. Four hundred Special Forces Rangers also are on the way as calls mount in Congress for complete withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the ambitious secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asserts his authority over national forces voluntarily placed under his command and disparages member states that "decide to enter [and leave?] the theater of conflict at a time and in a manner of their own choosing." His cause is "multi-lateralism." His aim is "preservation of the nation-state as the very foundation of international life."

However compelling the Boutros-Ghali doctrine may be, it is not in sync with the way both sides of this country's Bosnia debate really intend U.S. power to be used. True, for the first time ever, U.S. forces are operating in Somalia under a commander of a different nationality. But these forces have been sent to Somalia, and presumably could be pulled out of Somalia "at a time and in a manner of their own choosing."

All four of the Foreign Service officers who resigned favor U.S. military intervention to rescue the Bosnian Muslims. Their goal is to restore the independent, multi-ethnic Bosnia nation-state that never was, despite the hurried and heedless recognition it was given by the West. One of the Bosnia dissenters does not believe the U.S. will send in ground troops to enforce a proposed ethnic partitioning of Bosnia which he loathes; another believes we will and is aghast at the prospect.

We share their trepidations as strongly as we oppose their plans to have Americans troops take on the Serbs and/or the Croats. Where is the blueprint for a mission-accomplished withdrawal of American troops from the Balkans once they get there on an assignment neither the administration nor its critics adequately defines? Somalia should teach Americans to be cautious about using military power against dubious adversaries unless our vital interests are clearly at stake.

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