Paris -- The situation in Somalia is grotesque. The policy of the U.N. -- which means that of the United States, effectively in charge of the Somalia intervention -- has failed, at murderous cost to U.N. and U.S. troops, as well as to the Somalis they are supposed to be helping.
It must be changed, and that change can't wait until November 15, when the Clinton administration has agreed to explain its policy to the Senate. The operation's American commander, retired Admiral Jonathan Howe, has been called to U.N. headquarters in New York to review the situation.
American and U.N. forces are ransacking Mogadishu in a futile search for General Mohammed Farah Aidid. They have, at this writing, suffered 53 fatal casualties. When resisted, they return fire with heavy weapons and rocket fire from helicopters. They have fired on crowds in which civilians are intermingled with militiamen. The general's supporters say the U.N. and U.S. have killed more than 500 Somalis, many of them women and children, and have wounded another 300. The U.N. command says these are exaggerated figures but has no better ones to offer.
Current policy is going nowhere. Even if General Aidid were captured, that would almost certainly make matters worse. The aim of the U.N. is to put him on trial for the killings of 24 Pakistani U.N. soldiers in June. The lawyer named by the Security Council to draw up the case against the general, Tom Farer of American University in Washington, says that while there are grounds for prosecuting the general, to do so would not end the fighting, which is sustained by ''the sense of identity and mutual obligation'' of the clan's members. He recommends negotiations with the general.
The general carried out the coup that ousted Somalia's last president in 1991, and he is chiefly responsible for the chaotic war of clans that has followed. He is not an attractive fellow. But he is a clan chieftain whose followers are bound to him in ways that have nothing to do with politics, law or international judgment.
He is a fact of Somalian life. The idea that peace can be established by arresting him reflects American habits of thought and the American disposition to personalize conflicts and formulate problems in terms of the virtuous and the evil.
The United States has lacked a coherent formulation of what it is up to in Somalia ever since George Bush sent American troops there last December. It was a self-aggrandizing gesture by Mr. Bush, meant to give him a grand exit from Washington and overshadow the arrival of Bill Clinton, the draft-dodger.
American troops were to restore order and clear out, leaving the dirty work to U.N. peacekeeping forces from other countries. General Aidid was welcome at the American headquarters in those days, and Washington decided not to disarm the clans, as demanded by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. That would have been difficult and dangerous, and U.S. forces were there to show and tell on U.S. television, not to fight.
Mr. Bush at least knew what he wanted: one final demonstration of global reach, to demonstrate to the American electorate what they would miss when he was gone. Bill Clinton inherited the mess. But he now tells Congress that we are there because we are there and to leave would be ''a sign of weakness.'' This is not a policy.
The men on the scene have made up the policy as they went along, which became to get the bad guy. Rangers, Delta Force, Marines and the gunships now all are hard at it, without success. The U.N. headquarters itself now is besieged, as are the journalists in their hotel a half-mile away. Washington warns Americans to stay away from Somalia for fear of hostage-taking.
The Italian U.N. force commander and the Italian government -- the former colonial power in Somalia -- have objected to this policy from the beginning. They earned the scorn of American officers and a part of the American press because they have argued that clan and social reality had to be accommodated in Somalia, not torn down and reconstructed on an American model.
They negotiated with and placated clan elders in the part of Mogadishu they were assigned, and successfully calmed the situation there. They rejected the sock 'em, can-do, get-the-bastard policy the U.S. command had established. The result was political crisis between Rome and Washington (which Defense Secretary Les Aspin went to Rome last week to attempt to resolve) and a pull-out of the Italians from Mogadishu city.
The first principle that should be applied to this disastrous situation is the one that says that when you are in a hole, stop digging. There is also an obvious second step: Hand U.N. command over to the Italians and get the American commanders and troops out of the country. The Italians know Somalia and its society and have a theory about what to do, as about what cannot be done. Let them apply it. Perhaps it won't work, or is too late to work. But whatever they do has to be better than what is being done now.
The current U.N. course is opposed not only by Italy but by the Organization of African Unity, the international aid agencies active in Somalia, and other European countries, including Germany, which also has troops in Somalia. German Defense Minister Volker Ruhe has just said that the U.N. is headed toward ''a tragedy not only for Somalia but for the U.N.'' He is entirely correct.
Washington should admit this, however hard that may be on Washington reputations and pride. The American public would applaud. It thought we were in Somalia to see that hungry people got fed.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.