Congress on Somalia and Bosnia

August 31, 1993

Where is Congress as the Clinton administration steadily increases U.S. involvement in Somalia and Bosnia, sometimes putting American troops under foreign command as the United Nations expands its authority? No formal hearings have been held, no authorizing resolutions voted upon. The legislative branch that rang with furious debate over the Persian Gulf conflict has gone silent, a sign of its befuddlement in the post-Cold War era.

The central U.S. objective in the Somalia operation has switched from humanitarian to security objectives (now with comical results) without a whimper from Capitol Hill. And the president seems quite ready, with hardly a glance up Pennsylvania Avenue, to commit 30,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia to police ethnic partition if Muslim, Serb and Croat leaders agree.

While American intentions in these trouble spots are laudable, they have a way of turning sour on the ground. U.S. forces were welcomed in Somalia last December but by last week U.S. Rangers dispatched to hunt down a rebellious Somalian warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, were greeted by jeers and rocks. Their task will be made that much harder after a ludicrous nighttime raid that captured no rebels but terrified eight employees of the U.N. Development Program.

This fiasco coincided with a warning from former President Jimmy Carter that "Americans were ill-guided in intervening in this [Somalian] conflict." "From the moment the troops started targeting the region's political leaders, there was a regrettable shift." he said. "This is a mistake."

The shift mentioned by Mr. Carter took place strictly on Bill Clinton's watch. When George Bush was in charge, the Somalia operation was limited to the feeding of tens of thousands of Somalians. Now, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, without much prodding, has laid out vastly expanded objectives to restore security in Mogadishu, strip various warlords of their heavy arms and set up police forces in major cities. He prudently set no deadlines for completion of this ambitious program.

The ad hoc nature of administration policy, combined with detachment from foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, raises danger flags all around. If the operations in Somalia and Bosnia result in substantial casualties, an American public not prepared for such results could turn against the very notion of U.N. peacekeeping in this very turbulent world. This would be a tragedy of untold consequence.

If the international community is to find its bearings, President Clinton needs to assert intellectual as well as military and diplomatic leadership when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly next month. But Congress, too, needs to do its job.

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