WASHINGTON - Amid the destruction and crushed hopes in Sierra Leone, one of the most significant casualties is the credibility of United Nations peacekeepers, who have failed for the fifth time in less than a decade to prevent local hatreds from exploding into butchery.
The hundreds of dead in the small west African nation, the kidnapping of 500 U.N. soldiers and the thousands of refugees have again exposed the confusion and weakness that regularly grip the world body in the face of war.
"You have 7,000 peacekeepers on the ground in Sierra Leone. That is not an inconsiderable force," said Dennis Jett, former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and the author of the new book "Why Peacekeeping Fails." "But if they give up their weapons and don't fight, it doesn't matter how many people you have."
Reluctant soldiers are only the beginning of the United Nations' problems.
Troubles in Sierra Leone have generated concern for two U.N. missions, one to defuse ethnic strife in the Congo, the other to monitor Israel's planned withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
By most accounts, the blue-helmeted troops in Sierra Leone and other U.N. deployments are underequipped, undertrained and often underpaid. Analysts say the situation in Sierra Leone demonstrates the greater failings of diplomacy and management that continue to hobble U.N. peacekeeping.
"The really large lesson of Sierra Leone is that peacekeeping is not a substitute for a peace process," said George Ward, former U.S. ambassador to Namibia and now training director for the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government research center. "Peacekeeping can only help a genuine peace agreement stay in force." More than 30,000 U.N. soldiers, police officers and other peacekeepers from about 75 nations patrol more than a dozen world trouble spots, including such high-profile missions as Kosovo and Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia. More than 800 Americans serve in U.N. peacekeeping missions, mostly as police in Kosovo and Bosnia.
U.N. officials point to peacekeeping successes, including the recent deployment to East Timor and missions in Mozambique and Namibia in the early 1990s. U.N. peacekeepers won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 for long-term missions in Cyprus and the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
Even on missions in which the guns haven't been silenced, U.N. troops often keep bad situations from getting worse, U.N. officials say. And they insist that operations are improving.
Despite the failure of U.N. troops to prevent violence in Sierra Leone this month, "we have a better understanding about the conditions where you can intervene or not, even if, I would say, you always have surprises," said Bernard Miyet, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping.
"We try to do our utmost to push the developed countries to support" peacekeeping missions, he said. Last week, Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called on the organization to revamp its peacekeeping operations.
"Peacekeeping must be fixed in order to be saved," Holbrooke said at a U.N. budget meeting. He announced that the Clinton administration is reviewing the United States' procedures for financing U.N. peacekeeping, and he called on other nations to increase their financial contributions.
Holbrooke said the United States favors establishing a peacekeeping nerve center at U.N. headquarters in New York. This unit would allow the United Nations to rapidly summon previously identified resources in the event of a crisis, improving on the practice of starting almost from scratch on each mission to recruit personnel and obtain equipment.
Though acknowledging the faults of U.N. peacekeeping operations, U.S. officials maintain that international peacekeeping has made huge strides and that some of the recent failures stem from interventions that once wouldn't have been attempted.
Awareness of peacekeeping problems is nothing new. The United Nations' failure to stop violence in Bosnia, Angola, Rwanda and Somalia has overshadowed its successes.
In Bosnia, thousands died in 1995 as peacekeepers stood by while Serb forces attacked Bosnian Muslims. In Angola, a U.N. force failed to prevent renewed hostilities between the government and rebel militias in 1992.
In Rwanda, U.N. troops did little to prevent 800,000 from dying in a 1994 massacre driven by ethnic hatred. In Somalia, U.N. forces hastily withdrew from a famine-relief operation in 1994 after more than 140 peacekeepers died, including 44 Americans.
Sierra Leone has drawn new, highly negative attention to U.N. peacekeeping and helped prompt the Clinton administration's review.
Sierra Leone's problems developed after Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the elected president, signed a peace accord last year with Foday Sankoh, leader of the rebellious Revolutionary United Front.