Somalia: Anatomy of a Disaster

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Can Clinton's policy work in a more fundamental sense? Just maybe. Aidid's power is concentrated in southern Mogadishu (though that gives him a grip on the airport and the port area through which supplies for the rest of the country must move). In the countryside the U.N. has managed to organize three dozen councils of elders and other community representatives, and there are many reports of food moving to hungry people, of crops being planted and growing once again. It might be possible -- barely -- to promote a settlement among the councils and clan leaders that would include Aidid without anointing him, allowing the U.S. to pull out and claim, Mission accomplished.

If such a settlement were to rely on anything more than token U.N. military support, however, it might be doomed. Boutros-Ghali notes that U.N. members have stubbornly not put up the money that could finance Somalian peace -- funds needed to organize police forces or a judicial system, for example. So American troops might have to pull out with no settlement in place, and if Somalia remains dangerous, it seems unlikely that other troops will stay after the Yanks go. Boutros-Ghali remarks that France, Italy, Belgium, Jordan and Tunisia are already talking about pulling out even before the U.S. does. Aidid could smile ingratiatingly until the pullout and then launch a new drive for control. Then Somalia could plunge into precisely the disasters Clinton foresaw resulting from an immediate American bug-out: renewed clan warfare, anarchy, brutality and starvation.

Perhaps an even bigger question than whither Somalia is whither future peacekeeping operations. Last December's Operation Restore Hope was supposed to pioneer a new kind of American intervention, one for purely humanitarian purposes in a land where the U.S. had no economic or strategic interests. The later multinational operation was to have been the forerunner of a new kind of U.N. intervention, one mounted not to monitor a peace but to establish one, undertaken without the traditional invitation from a host government and carried out not by the usual lightly armed troops but by forces toting enough weapons to fight a serious battle.

But it now seems possible that Somalia will set a very different precedent -- of extreme U.S. reluctance to mount or join any peacekeeping operation except one that poses little or no risk of casualties. There are signs that this is happening already. The U.S. was supposed to send 600 military engineers and medical specialists to Haiti this week to help carry out the agreement that will restore the exiled Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency, but late last week the Pentagon seemed to postpone the plan, only to be reversed by the White House. It has also become hard to assess the chances that the U.S. will dispatch 25,000 troops to help police a peace agreement in Bosnia, should one ever be reached. At present the chances are zero. It would be a supreme irony if the brave venture in Somalia winds up by effectively putting the U.S. out of the peacekeeping business. But it would be unwise to bet now against that happening.

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