THE offer by President Bush to use US troops to protect humanitarian relief operations in Somalia forces the issue of what can and should be done to ease the suffering in that east African land.
The volume of aid to Somalia has increased recently, and deaths from hunger have been decreasing in such critical areas as Baidoa and Bardera. But the country's endemic violence, driven by low-level civil war between competing clans, has prevented much of the aid from reaching its intended beneficiaries.
That situation prompted Mr. Bush's offer. A greatly bolstered outside military presence appears to hold the only hope of keeping the warring factions at bay so that food can reach people in quantities large enough to turn the corner on famine. Well-equipped American troops in the numbers proposed by the president, together with allies from other United Nations members, should be ample to deter the bandits, who now use stolen food as a kind of substitute currency.
But the problems are many:
* Who would command the expanded UN force? The US wants full command of its own forces. This may be hard for the UN to swallow; the ideal might be a truly international, and internationally commanded, unit. US military leaders, however, prefer "decisive intervention" that will aggressively pursue the mission of protecting aid, rather than the more tentative military doctrine normally followed by the UN.
* Will local leaders cooperate? One of Somalia's strongmen, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, has said he would welcome the US involvement. He has in the past threatened to send UN soldiers home in body bags. But he may see the inevitability of substantial intervention and the prudence of going along with it. Other factional leaders may follow his lead.
* Will the mission have an end? No one can say for sure how long outside forces will have to stay to assure the delivery of relief. The only hope of long-term protection for the country's people lies in intensified UN efforts to bring various sides together and negotiate a new polity for Somalia.
That political effort is shrouded in uncertainty. The task of guarding relief shipments has its uncertainties too - will some of the local gangs resent the interference and turn more forcefully against relief workers?
The risks are clear. But so is the necessity of taking decisive action to end Somalia's nightmare. President Bush is right to force the issue. He has given the UN needed new options.