Humanitarian Policy Restrained by Prudence

THOMAS OMESTAD

October 01, 1993|By THOMAS OMESTAD

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- After months of indecision, President Clinton at last seems to be settling on a workable policy on humanitarian intervention. Gone is the administration's loose, early talk of thrusting the United Nations into the role of global policeman in an array of ethnic and civil conflicts.

It is a remarkable turnabout.

During his campaign, Clinton called for a permanent U.N. rapid-deployment force composed of national units that would be ''standing guard at the borders of countries threatened by aggression.'' His ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine Albright, proclaimed an era of ''assertive multilateralism.'' In July, Clinton aides produced a draft directive anticipating the ''rapid expansion'' of U.N. peace-enforcement operations with U.S. forces sometimes ''under the operational control'' of the U.N.

A much more cautious approach has now prevailed. In a week-long speech-making blitz, the administration's top foreign-policy makers have emphasized the limits of multilateral peacekeeping over its merits.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher was the first to signal the tilt away from multilateral missions, warning that the U.S. ''will never subcontract its foreign policy to another power.'' National-security adviser Anthony Lake raised doubts about the ability of outsiders to resolve ethnic and civil wars, presumably like Bosnia's, adding: ''There will be relatively few international ethnic conflicts that justify our military intervention.''

It was left to Ms. Albright to set out the broad criteria for American involvement in peacekeeping: Is there a real threat to international peace and security? Are the mission's objectives clearly defined? Is a cease-fire in place and do the warring parties accept a U.N. presence? Who will pay for the operation? And what will trigger the end of an operation?

Finally, President Clinton, in a U.N. address on Monday, insisted that those questions had to be answered before the U.S. commits troops, and he argued for greater care in selecting future operations: ''If the American people are to say yes to U.N. peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no.''

Advocates of intervention in Bosnia and elsewhere may accuse the administration of sacrificing the victims of violence for political expediency. But there is more than expediency at work. Mr. Clinton and his advisers are coming to grips with the complexities of ethnic conflict and of making collective security work. They should be congratulated for realism rather than bashed for tearing up a blank check for intervention.

Mr. Clinton clearly has been wrestling with the question of intervention for months. His comments suggest a desire to put U.S. military muscle behind internationalist idealism, but also a suspicion that Americans are not ready to see their countrymen kill and be killed in a variety of dimly understood conflicts. The likelihood of foreign involvements distracting the nation from Mr. Clinton's domestic reforms must also have weighed heavily.

But it is the Somalia experience, and the even greater risks in Bosnia, that are forcing the young administration to rethink its approach to intervention.

Day by day, Somalia shows what happens when the aims of a humanitarian mission are distorted, even for the best of motivations. Its goals and risks clear, the initial Somali famine-relief operation was popular with the American people and Congress. It was demonstrably successful on those terms.

It has become demonstrably unpopular, however, since U.S. forces under a cumbersome U.N. command became bogged down in urban guerrilla war with gunmen loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. The U.N.'s obsession with his capture has come to overshadow efforts to rebuild Somalia's institutions and allow that country to take charge of its own security.

Mounting American casualties, including the three helicopter crewmen killed a week ago, are undercutting congressional support. Both Democrats and Republicans are resisting increased funding for peacekeeping, and they are pressuring President Clinton to spell out his Somalia policy and get congressional approval by November 15 if U.S. troops are to remain there.

The rebellion on Capitol Hill is already threatening the administration's plan to send 25,000 American troops to police a possible Bosnian peace accord. Senator Sam Nunn and other lawmakers are pushing the White House to specify an ''exit strategy.''

The prospect of losing control over foreign policy to Congress is spurring the administration into action. The result is better policy. President Clinton is now focused on strengthening the U.N. military apparatus and paying America's overdue peacekeeping bill. He is also favoring tougher terms for U.S. involvement in Bosnia: a time limit, NATO operational command, an evacuation scenario if fighting resumes, a plan for sharing the esti mated $4 billion annual cost, commitments by the allies to match the number of U.S. troops and unequivocal acceptance of the peace accord by all sides.

If such terms can be met, Mr. Clinton will be able to make a strong case for going into Bosnia. He can tell Congress that the risks of doing nothing now exceed the risks of peacekeeping. And he can assure a skeptical nation that prudence, not untested schemes, has dictated the terms for putting Americans in harm's way.

Thomas Omestad is associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

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