WASHINGTON — In Congress today conservatives fight off Bill Clinton's plans to commit U.S. forces to ambiguous causes in remote places and question the constitutional implications of sending American forces into harm's way without the consent of Congress. It was not ever thus.
When Ronald Reagan used force in Libya and Grenada, liberals called him an international law-breaker and worried aloud about our national tendency to shoot from the hip. When the Reagan administration offered arms and training to the Nicaraguan resistance, liberal law professors pronounced the policy illegal and entirely rejected the argument that it is acceptable to use force to impose or restore democracy.
Leading liberals declared the Bush administration's use of force in Panama the clearest possible violation of the U.N. Charter's prohibition on force, and professors of international law reminded all and sundry that the use of force against another state is never justified except -- perhaps -- in self-defense and that very narrowly interpreted.
These extremely negative attitudes colored the liberal response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iraq even after the U.N. Security Council authorized force. The outcome of the Senate vote on the issue remained in doubt to the very end, although Iraq's invasion of Kuwait across an international border was as clear a case of aggression as could be imagined. Vocal opposition of leading Democrats was finally silenced only by enthusiastic, popular applause for the brilliant performance of American forces and high-tech weapons.
Even President Bush's decision to send starving Somalis U.S. troops bearing food and medicine met little liberal enthusiasm -- despite its humanitarian motive and Security Council authorization.
The liberal critics' position was clear. The prohibition on the use of force in international relations was the heart of the U.N. Charter, the crucial norm, the very basis of a civilized world. International lawyer Louis Henkin spoke for many when he wrote:
''The [U.N.] Charter -- an epitaph to Hitler -- is not neutral between democracy and totalitarianism, between justice and injustice, or between respect for human rights and their violation. . . . But . . . those fundamental goals are not to be pursued by force.''
Suddenly it all changed.
With the definitive end of the Cold War, the election of Bill Clinton, and the arrival in power of a new foreign-policy team, liberal isolationism was -- almost overnight -- replaced by a new doctrine of liberal-style global engagement. Liberal hostility to the use of force gave way to new doctrines of ''peacekeeping'' and ''democracy building'' that purport to justify the use of force for separating parties to a conflict, disarming warlords and nation-building in Somalia, imposing Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Haiti, ''containing'' conflict in Macedonia, delivering food and medicine to Kurds and providing ''advisers'' to Bosnia.
Almost anything except fighting a war.
Between the time they protested the Vietnam War and the time theyre-entered government with Bill Clinton, a generation of liberals rethought their views on force and intervention.
The problem, key administration members decided, was not with the use of force, but with those who used it. Use of force, they said, should be multinational, altruistic and minimal.
This new doctrine fit perfectly with the expansive agenda of a new U.N. Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
The result was a new vocabulary: Now use of force is called ''peacekeeping'' or, more recently, a ''peace operation.'' A series of Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force in a wide range of conflicts including Somalia, Bosnia, Burundi, Angola, Macedonia, Liberia, Mozambique, Georgia, among others, led to a series of expensive, dangerous, unsuccessful quasi-military operations -- all of which have failed to achieve their goals.
Many of these ''peace operations'' are clear violations of the U.N. Charter's prohibitions on intervention in the internal affairs of nations and its provisions concerning the right of self-defense and the conduct of military operations. But no one seems to care yet.
Since Mogadishu, President Clinton has shown his famed political good sense by being more cautious than his advisers about committing American forces.
If we are lucky, he will continue to do so.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration.