Sticky Foam and Rubber Bullets

March 07, 1995|By JEANE KIRKPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- While Congress debated balancing the U.S. budget, American Marines were sent, at great expense, to Somalia. This time they were armed with barbed wire, sticky foam and rubber bullets. Their mission: to be part of a 14,000-man ''extraction mission'' to cover the retreat of 2,500 U.N. troops.

It was the last phase of the failed UNOSOM II mission that had already cost 30 Americans killed in action, 175 wounded, and unknown quantities of money. U.N. costs are said to have been over $2 billion. The United States is believed to have contributed more than $1 billion in men, materiel and services. The evacuation alone is expected to cost about $50 million.

Like all U.S. contributions above our assessed 31.7 percent share of U.N. peacekeeping costs these will simply be taken from the U.S. defense budget, from funds authorized and appropriated for such conventional defense activities as training and spare parts. U.N. peacekeeping missions are expensive -- especially when conducted by Americans. That is one reason any U.S. administration should avoid such operations unless they are urgent and there is a strong prospect that they can be successful.

A second reason such operations should be avoided is that to equip American forces with non-lethal weapons and submit them to U.N. rules of engagement will demoralize them -- which is where the pepper grenades, wooden pellets and sticky foam enter the picture.

A Pentagon briefing on the new non-lethal weapons and the policies governing their use makes clear they are part of the Administration's ongoing campaign to tame American forces. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry says he wants to make certain that no one -- on either side -- is hurt in the operation. The spirit of this policy is captured in Mr. Perry's comment that the Marines will enter Somalia with their guns pointed backward.

The Pentagon does not desire to leave the impression that Marines will be defenseless because they are armed with non-lethal weapons. The briefing also explains, ''authorization to use lethal force for self-defense against deadly threats would be unaffected by use of non-lethal weapons for achieving mission objectives.''

Maybe. But the very idea that Marines sent into a dangerous situation should need a specific authorization to use regular (lethal) weapons in self-defense against deadly threats in a war zone, tells us they are being submitted to some strange and unusual rules of engagement.

They are, in fact U.N. rules of engagement like those imposed on U.N. protection forces in Bosnia. Under these rules, use of force is permitted only if the life of the peacekeeper is directly and immediately threatened. These are the rules U.N. peacekeepers were operating under when, at the airport in Sarajevo, they permitted the vice premier of Bosnia-Herzegovina to be murdered -- though they had promised him safekeeping. French peacekeepers explained to a reporter later that they had not drawn their guns because their own lives were not directly threatened.

Such rules of engagement, which do not even permit forces to fire in defense of their buddies, are utterly incompatible with unit cohesion, force security and morale. U.S. forces cannot operate under such rules and maintain their morale.

But why, in any case, should the Pentagon impose non-lethal weapons on America's finest when they send them into danger? Do Bill Clinton and Bill Perry think these Marines are trigger-happy? Don't they know that there is an alternative to sticky stuff and guns turned backward? It is discipline. American forces can be and are both fierce and restrained in the use of force because they are disciplined professionals. Trusting the discipline of well armed forces preserves their credibility and TTC their confidence.

There is a third reason these are bad policies. When it sends Marines into danger armed with silly putty and hot pepper, the U.S. government sends a message that they are as concerned about the adversary as about the Americans under their command.

American officials have a primary and overriding responsibility to the forces whom they command and to the taxpayers who support them all. They have a responsibility not to waste lives or strength or money. And not to take on missions with no likely prospect of success. The first mission in Somalia, undertaken by George Bush, that delivered food and medicine to a starving Somalia was successful. But UNOSOM II -- undertaken after President Bush left office, aimed at nation- and state-building -- was a predictable failure.

Washington gossip has it that the Somali evacuation is a dress rehearsal for a similar but much larger U.S. role in Bosnia -- where it is said the Clinton administration plans to send 20,000 American troops to oversee the evacuation. Such an undertaking would be much more expensive, and dangerous, and have no better chance of success than nation-building in Somalia.

Mr. Clinton should talk these policies over with the people of Arkansas before he orders enough sticky stuff for that job.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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