Somalia Gone Sour

September 30, 1993

In the beginning, the Somalia operation was to serve as a model American response to the post-Cold War era. U.S. troops would go into a famine-ravaged nation, restore the food supply, impose some law and order, make way for the United Nations and get out. It was a humanitarian, feel-good gesture, much in keeping with the Christmas season, that would neatly mesh a fine U.S. initiative with multilateral U.N. peace-keeping.

Less than nine months later, the Somalia operation is boomeranging badly. Instead of serving as a model for U.S. internationalism, it is inhibiting U.S. support for the United Nations and its far-flung missions. President Clinton lectures the U.N. General Assembly to limit its interventions or risk losing U.S. backing. The House of Representatives, which in May passed a resolution approving a U.S. military presence in Somalia for 12 months and perhaps longer, now demands the administration justify its strategy by mid-October or risk losing funding. [See letter in adjoining column.]

This turnabout has implications that go far beyond Somalia. Its first impact is being felt in Bosnia, where Clinton big-talk about sending 25,000 U.S. troops if the Serbs, Croats and Muslims can agree on a peace plan is running into a firestorm of doubt. The president's own conditions for U.S. involvement in peacekeeping set standards that neither Somalia nor Bosnia can meet.

Because this situation clouds the administration's awkward efforts to articulate a coherent foreign policy, U.S. credibility and leadership are increasingly at risk worldwide.

Somalia is a classic case of good intentions gone wrong, of paternalism stumbling on the rocks of misunderstanding. The limited humanitarian objectives which inspired George Bush's last hurrah were allowed to expand into nation-building and peace-enforcement operations when primary responsibility passed from the U.S. to the U.N. last Spring. Because the killing of foreign troops had not yet begun, because warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid was not yet declared an enemy, because events were moving in hopeful directions, neither the White House nor the Congress gave sufficient heed to the dangers involved.

Instead, some American forces were placed under U.N. command with scarcely a nod toward the precedents involved. And when this U.N. command decided to go on the hunt for General Aidid, even combat troops under U.S. command were drawn into the fray. The result is a Clinton administration in retreat not only from its commitments in Somalia but from its naive faith in the peace-keeping prowess of the United Nations.

The lesson to be learned here, very painfully, is not that the United States should return to isolationism and shirk its duties as the world's sole military superpower. It is that these responsibilities should be exercised with care and prudence and realism or they will never be exercised effectively and with honor.

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