The Somalia-Bosnia Muddle

September 20, 1993

"If the United States is going to be asked to undertake new responsibilities, for example, in Bosnia if there is a peace agreement there, then we need to have a time certain for a withdrawal of our forces from Somalia." The source of this extraordinary assertion is President Clinton himself. It illustrates the distracted way in which this administration undertakes and executes overseas commitments while Congress ducks and frets.

The president's words notwithstanding, Senate leaders (presumably with Mr. Clinton's approval) just headed off an attempt by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to fix a date when the 5,000 American troops assigned to the U.N. mission in Somalia should be withdrawn. Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., warned that a fixed exit date would put our forces in a "very difficult situation."

Then consider Mr. Clinton's linkage of Somalia to the Bosnia situation in a ruminating interview with Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. The president suggests that the United States will "undertake new responsibilities" in Bosnia only after a departure from Somalia is scheduled.

Does this mean a failed mission in Somalia is a good jumping off place for entanglement in the Balkans? If so, the president will have to deal with a troubled Congress and a troubled citizenry.

Mr. Clinton came to office as the United Nations was assuming more and more peace-keeping or peace-enforcing operations around the world. Most require U.S. financial support. Somalia has depended on U.S. forces as well. What Bosnia might entail is anybody's guess since NATO can't decide whether to operate under its own or a U.N. command. But any idea that keeping the peace in a Bosnia partitioned along ethnic lines will be a peaceful undertaking can be discarded forthwith.

Neither the administration nor Congress has faced up to the war-fighting and foreign-policy questions implicit in the new world situation.

Somalia has set some important precedents. There, for the first time, under Article 7 of the United Nations Charter, some American troops have been placed under U.N. command. Washington tries to draw a distinction between the 3,000 non-combat troops in blue helmets and the 2,000 combat troops still under U.S. command as they hunt Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. But all are in peril, as daily firefights attest.

As the Somalia mission has changed and the projected U.S. role in Bosnia has expanded, Congress has been worried but quiescent. This does not signify agreement; it signifies confusion and timidity. Chairman Lee Hamilton of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says Congress would never approve putting U.S. "combat troops under foreign command." If he is right, then present U.S. policy in support of U.N. operations is suspect.

Clearly, the time has come for the administration to explain its foreign policy in this new era -- with particular reference to Somalia and Bosnia -- and for Congress to respond coherently.

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