Come Home, America Saving Face Is No Reason to Compound a Mistake

GARRY WILLS

October 08, 1993|By GARRY WILLS VVTC

Chicago. -- When action can be defined and defended only by a negative, look out.

One negative statement obliterates all thought: ''We cannot cut and run.'' The very formulaic nature of the phrase emphasizes its almost manic shove of dismissal, a shudder at the dismissed thing. Keep saying that as an incantation, and people will accept all the positive options that are kept open by the sealing off of this negative one. ''Cut and run'' sounds far more ignoble than withdraw, depart or cease action.

Well, then if we rule out that despicable act, what are we left to do in a positive way? Kill General Aidid? Punish his supporters? Level his country? Make Somalia safe for democracy? Teach that country how to be a small replica of the United States? Find some indigenous saint universally beloved and then turn the reins of power over to him? Name any option you like, and it is absurd on the face of it.

Some Americans ask, naively, how we became the bad guys when we went there to do good. They should read Graham Greene's ''The Quiet American.'' The outsider who is going to set things straight for the ignorant natives undertakes a role that few can sustain. Even Mother Teresa would become a bad guy if she showed up with tanks to order the natives around.

What is the worst that can happen if we withdraw? Some loss of face for the president, some anger among the parents of those killed in this feckless exercise, a bit of international ridicule. Bad, perhaps, but bearable -- no major injury. We would be seen less as weaklings than (as Woodrow Wilson once put it) as ''too proud to fight.''

What is the worst that can happen if we stay? Another Vietnam, although on a smaller scale -- dribbling away lives in skirmishes of indeterminate outcome, with a long wriggle to disengage, one constantly knotting itself into paralysis because each new death gives us a perverse new determination not to leave while not in control.

That would be the worst for us. The worst for Somalia would be a country -- already weakened by poverty and starvation -- ravaged by increased hostilities, internal and external, locking itself into angers that drain the country's few resources and sources of stability. Having come to help, we would inflict a lasting hurt.

Between a probable mild setback and a probable disaster, who would chose the disaster? Don't count on it that President Clinton won't.

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