The military mess

March 02, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- ON MY RECENT trip to the Middle East and Europe, nobody -- not one person -- asked me about the United States or the Clinton administration. New York Times columnist Flora Lewis found the same "bewildering" phenomenon in January at the World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland.

And this week, dramatized for the whole world to see, we can see why we are increasingly becoming, in Henry Kissinger's word, "irrelevant" as we move beyond the end of the Cold War toward the turn of the century.

* Point: In Somalia, where we sent troops in with such hope to end mass starvation 16 months ago, several thousand American troops were sent in again this week. Why? To fight to protect foreign policy interests? No, to escort U.N. troops out of that hopeless situation. (Meanwhile, even as the American troops began landing Monday, the vicious clan leaders of Somalia, backed up by their "technicals," waited outside the base to begin the war all over again.)

* Point: This same week, President Clinton announced it was likely he would send as many as 20,000 to 30,000 troops to Croatia and Bosnia this spring. Why? To punish the mass murderers of 200,000 people? To finally bring justice to that benighted region? No, if they go in this spring it will be to escort the U.N. troops out of that shameful chapter in history. (In Belgrade, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic rejected with ever more contempt Washington's most recent submission to him for a way to get it -- not him -- out of the situation. And Serb fighters were readying for a fourth spring of "ethnic cleansing," .. with perhaps a few attacks on the U.N. peacekeepers just for the heck of it.)

* Point: In Haiti, where American troops went last fall to return to power a democratically elected president, the main impression being given by our leaders is not that the troops have done such a good job, but that we have to get them out as fast as possible, before anyone gets hurt. (And at the same time, the Ton Ton Macoutes and vicious "attaches," not having been disarmed, are waiting in the hills for everyone to leave.)

In short, the picture we are giving to the world is that the U.S.' military doctrine is no longer, as the military always put it, "to seize, retain and exploit the initiative." No, today, we might better describe our purpose as to "try, fail, get out and then get those other blokes out [with nobody getting hurt]."

When the Clinton administration came in two years ago, advisers such as Anthony Lake reiterated that, yes, they knew they had been accidentally positioned by history to face this pregnant post-Cold War moment, similar to 1945. They said, don't be impatient; hey, it took time in 1945 to develop the Marshall Plan, NATO, the containment policy toward Russia.

But the Clinton group not only has not come up with any policy toward this troubled world, but also is completely stuck in its own passivity, contempt for American power and "therapeutic" attitude toward America's role in the world. Ten years from now, it would still have no policy for transforming the world except using the U.S. military as an itinerant police and rescue force.

In short, the United States is indeed, as some of our generals have privately been warning, becoming self-neutralized.

And so it is no surprise that North Korea is calling Washington's bluff (The North has virtually backed down on taking a "safe" nuclear plant from South Korea. The administration's answer to that was to try to woo it further by calling off traditional war games with the south). It is no surprise that the Clinton administration continues to give the Russians more, and more, and more, no matter what they do. (At the moment, Russia is buoying up the Serbs, destroying Chechnya and tearing apart foreign oil deals with Moscow.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is developing "flexible responses," the idea being to develop original ways to deal with ethnic wars, militias and street gangs. This is good, but . . .

When American troops went into Somalia again this week, this time they were armed not only with guns, but also with an unorthodox arsenal of wooden bullets, "bean bag guns" that fire bullets that sting but don't penetrate the skin, and a sticky foam that literally glues adversaries to the ground.

One might be forgiven for thinking sardonically of all the world's bad guys glued to the ground as we sailed away (the glue comes off only with a special American solution). Yet the situation is in truth even odder than that.

"I think the whole nature of warfare is changing," Lt. Gen. Anthony C. Zimmi, commander of this new Somalia operation, said this week. "The military probably shouldn't fight it." Am I wrong in thinking that those incredible words could be a sister quote to Vietnam's "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it"?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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