Before they starve in Zaire Canada leads: U.S. airlift needed for aid mission to be effective.

November 14, 1996

ALL THE REASONS the U.S. has for not rushing headstrong into Zaire, Canada has as well. While 18 American troops died as a result of mission creep in Somalia in 1993, Canadian troops were accused of torture and murder, leading to scandal and the resignation of a chief of staff.

In the latest African disaster -- Zaire -- the underlying political problems have not been faced. The one million Hutus fleeing their camps in eastern Zaire were held there by militia who had perpetrated the 1994 Rwanda genocide, who used the camps for raids on Rwanda and who provoked the attacks that dispersed the refugees. France is anathema to the Tutsi commanders of Rwanda, having armed the previous Hutu regime. Food meant for civilians has gone to militia. If one side does not shoot at outside rescuers, the other might.

The reason to do something, however, is that a million innocent people are fleeing to likely death of thirst, starvation or cholera, people who could be rescued by competent airlift and distribution. Small wonder that Bishop John Ricard of Baltimore, board chairman of Catholic Relief Services, on Tuesday persuaded the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington to urge American and international humanitarian initiatives.

And it is also not surprising that Canada -- while the U.S. suffered paralysis from the changing of its foreign policy guard -- took the lead. The U.N. emissary to the region, Raymond Chretien, is not only Canada's ambassador to the U.S. but also Prime Minister Jean Chretien's nephew. Canada has none of the baggage of a superpower like the U.S. or a former colonial master like France or Belgium. It is a great economic power and a French-speaking country. It is independent of U.S. foreign policy but intimate with Washington.

And if Canada makes this work, Canadians will take pride. With their own crisis of identity and secession in Quebec, they will note that neither part of Canada could have undertaken this without the other. But no operation would work without U.S. airlift capacity. The part that causes hesitation and invites criticism is putting U.S. troops in harm's way.

The advance party of experts from the Pentagon was not a commitment but a tip-off that the administration would not long feel able to stay out, which the White House confirmed by announcing that 5,000 U.S. troops might take part, with 1,000 inside Zaire. This cannot be a textbook case of risk-free intervention. It is a response to humanitarian emergency, full of risk but likely to save lives.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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