WASHINGTON -- Despite the administration's attempts to blame the United Nations for the Somalia crisis, the intensifying military operations there were repeatedly endorsed and sometimes driven by top U.S. officials in the months before the disastrous Army raid on a hostile faction two weeks ago.
Last Thursday, 11 days after 18 U.S. soldiers died in the raid, President Clinton sought to shift responsibility to the United Nations, which took over the Somalian operation in the spring.
Mr. Clinton said the aggressive effort against the faction leader, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, "never should have been allowed to supplant the political process that was ongoing when we were in effective control, up through last May."
But while officials and critics are hunting for scapegoats, classified messages between Mogadishu and Washington and interviews with U.S. policy-makers, military officers and U.N. officials show a more complex picture of a policy with wider support in Washington than acknowledged.
The premise of the U.N. policy -- to neutralize General Aidid's power -- was shared by top administration officials throughout most of the summer, though some were uneasy that the strategy relied too heavily on military force.
The U.S. military at first also supported the policy of confronting General Aidid with force, but later came to doubt that it would be possible to capture him.
Even when the administration began to rethink its approach in September, it did not tell U.S. forces in Somalia under Pentagon control to abandon their hunt for General Aidid. It was under the old standing orders that the Army Rangers launched their attack Oct. 3.
A broad range of interviews disclosed these details of U.S. policy-making:
* As late as Sept. 6 -- two weeks after the administration agreed to a plea from military commanders in Somalia to send a battalion of Rangers -- the State Department's liaison office in Mogadishu sent a classified message to Washington seeking more troops. The message alarmed Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, head of the U.S. Central Command, who sent his own message to Washington dismissing the idea as a hopeless crusade.
* In early summer, the CIA endorsed the view, held by the United Nations and publicly supported by Mr. Clinton at the time, that General Aidid was a disruptive force who would interfere with the rebuilding of Somalia.
* Using his contacts in Washington, Jonathan Howe, the retired U.S. admiral who is the U.N. envoy to Somalia, engaged in what an aide to Defense Secretary Les Aspin called "frenetic and obsessive" lobbying for more forces, culminating in the decision to send the Rangers.
The mild-mannered Mr. Howe acknowledged the calls but said he never requested any troops without the agreement of the U.N. and U.S. military commanders in Somalia.
"I know there are a lot of people trying to put the finger on me," Mr. Howe said. "I have just been one of the many people involved in the policy, which started with the Security Council. A lot of people were involved in it."
Meanwhile, in Mogadishu, forces loyal to General Aidid have dismantled most of the dozen roadblocks they had erected along a main thoroughfare in the capital, in an apparent gesture of good will, U.S. military officers said yesterday.
The change is important because the roadblocks built by General Aidid's forces had essentially prevented U.N. forces from moving along the east-west road.