Playing Globocop

Twas not what the poets would call a famous victory. The Somali warlord and his men had plenty of warning. At 1:30 a.m., searchlights bathed Mohamed Farah Aidid's compound; only four hours later did the United Nations force arrive. Using women and children as human shields, Aidid's henchmen greeted the Moroccan, Italian, French and Pakistani troops with a blast of gunfire. A grenade was tossed into a jeep, and four U.N. soldiers lay dead. U.S. troops were supposed to be kept safely out of the fray, but 130 American soldiers, light infantry from Fort Drum, N.Y., had to be rushed in. As day broke, the U.N. toll included 46 wounded, including an American GI cut by flying glass. As for Aidid, he had long since escaped.

"A success," beamed President Clinton in his televised press conference last week. "A complete success," proclaimed Jonathan Howe, the retired American Navy admiral who is the U.N. special envoy to Somalia. American AC-130H Spectre gun-ships did manage to shoot up some of the warlord's arms caches. Still, it was not quite clear what would have constituted failure. Howe announced, somewhat after the fact, that the U.N. Security Council had called for the arrest of Aidid, who is held accountable for the ambush murder of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. But at the White House, top aides were quietly relieved that Aidid had slipped away. After all, what would the United Nations do with the warlord if it captured him? He cannot be brought to justice in Somalia, where there is none, and neither Pakistan nor the United States was eager to put him on trial in its own courts.

So it goes in the new age of global peace-keeping. Conflicts that are at once bloody and tentative. Goals that are at best fuzzy. Rhetoric that is not matched by results. Open-ended commitments to nations with no strategic value to the United States.

This is the future, and the Clinton administration is backing into it. The president has been unable to explain his criteria for American intervention-if indeed he has any. And the vast diplomatic and military bureaucracy that he presides over has only begun to think through the practical problems of multinational peacekeeping, not the least of which is the extreme reluctance of American soldiers to take orders from foreign commanders. Instead the president has wavered between declarations of resolve and political prudence--or pusillanimity. Eager to rebut charges of waffling, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent out a cable to American ambassadors earlier this month, listing the administration's achievements in foreign policy. Some items on the list, like Clinton's support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, are real enough. But they do not add up to anything like a coherent vision for dealing with messy trouble spots like Somalia in the post-cold-war world.

The problem is that Clinton, as usual, wants to have it both ways. He poses as an internationalist who believes the United States must remain a global leader. But he is very reluctant to use American power to back his words, especially at a time when he is preoccupied with domestic concerns. The administration's defensiveness on this score was vividly displayed by the strange case of Mr. X, the senior State Department official (later disclosed to be Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff) who, at a background briefing last month, stated that the United States could no longer afford to play quite the leadership role it had during the cold war. It was nothing but the obvious truth-but almost immediately, the White House and the State Department disavowed his remarks. Tarnoff was bewildered; he had prepared for the backgrounder, he told a friend, by reading the campaign speeches of Bill Clinton.

Candidate Clinton's speeches were full of bromides that went largely unnoticed in a campaign that dwelled almost exclusively on the American economy. To sell American commitment abroad after the cold war, President Clinton has to do much more. He needs to conjure up a new animating idea, an all-purpose casus belli. As long as communism was a threat, a president could tell mothers that their sons were fighting for a greater goal, even if the war was a proxy struggle like Vietnam. But Clinton knows there is little willingness, in the Pentagon or among the people, to sacrifice for a free Bosnia. Indeed, it is hard to know when American lives should be put on the line. When is human suffering too great? Why in Somalia but not Sudan? When does a civil war become genocide? Why in Bosnia but not Liberia? At times it appears that the only decisive factor is the presence of American television cameras: where the images are horrific, the flag follows.

In their search for a coherent policy-not to mention someone else to share the burden and the blame-the Clintonians have seized on multilateralism. No longer will the United States go it alone; increasingly, it will turn to the United Nations to help keep the peace. The model is supposedly the Persian Gulf War, declared and waged by a broad alliance that included no fewer than 28 nations. The model is a bit of a mirage, however; the alliance was a contrivance of George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, designed to provide political cover in the Arab world. In the end, the United States did most of the fighting. Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, has called for "assertive multilateralism." But that, points out Washington Post columnist Stephen Rosenfeld, is very nearly an oxymoron. The fact is that U.N. peacekeepers are not up to the task, at least as it is now defined. Anyone who doubts that has only to ask why the United States is back in Somalia, just six weeks after it turned over the job to the blue helmets of other nations.

There was a time when U.N. peacekeeping meant a limited and largely symbolic deployment of troops. They were sent to isolated areas to separate combatants who had already agreed to a U.N. presence. It was perfectly fine to put poorly trained Fijian troops in the Sinai desert because it was unlikely they would ever hear a shot fired in anger. The joke was that the small blue medal given those peacekeepers was for "cooking and looking."

In Somalia and Bosnia, however, peacekeeping can quickly become warmaking. Policymakers would do well to study the British experience in Northern Ireland: brought in to quell religious strife between Roman Catholics and Protestants in 1969, the British soldiers soon became targets themselves. Today, after more than 3,000 deaths, there are 12,000 British troops tied down in a ruined province that costs Britain more than $1 billion a year. Somalia could easily become a Northern Ireland. Welcomed to feed the hungry, U.N. troops are now denounced as neocolonialist oppressors. Often poorly trained and frightened, they are easily provoked. Last week Pakistani troops opened up on a crowd in Mogadishu, killing at least 20 civilians. Command and control under Turkish Lt. Gen. Cevik Bir are said to be spotty at best. The Pentagon, always reluctant to put its soldiers under foreign command, was very wary of ceding any authority to General Bir.

But the United Nations badly needs U.S. help. U.N. headquarters in New York only recently installed a 24-hour answering service for its 80,000 peacekeepers, who are spread too thin around the world. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has said that the United Nations needs 34,000 troops to operate the so-called safe havens in Bosnia. So far, the member nations have contributed about one tenth that number, and the havens are anything but safe. This week Clinton is scheduled to send 300 U.S. troops to nearby Macedonia; the force is supposed to be a tripwire, though after Clinton's cave-in over Bosnia, it's not clear that the Serbs will be deterred from attacking.

Submarine warfare? The American military has always looked askance at peacekeeping. With Pentagon logic, Gen. Colin Powell hoped to shuffle off the job by assigning it to the Atlantic Command which has few ground troops and normally deals with submarine warfare. American soldiers are trained to maneuver and pour on the firepower, not to stand and obey fuzzy rules of engagement. Peace-keeping calls for special skills: before going into Northern Ireland, British troops have to be taught restraint and then reconditioned afterward for combat. The Pentagon has 11,800 Green Berets with the training and languages to work in the Third World as advisers to foreign military forces. (They have even taught counterpoaching techniques to African game wardens.) But it takes almost two years to make a Green Beret. "It's not enough to give everyone a two-hour class in peacekeeping," says a senior Pentagon official.

For the Somalias of the future, the Clinton administration has begun to consider creating a rapid-deployment force that would be on call for U.N. duty. But Clinton is far from signing off on the idea. Indeed, his foreign-policy advisers are having difficulty even persuading the president to make a speech on America's global role. No one is quite sure what he should say.