The US Had to Act

Moral leadership, not self-interest, was paramount. THE MISSION IN SOMALIA

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A NUMBER of those who question our sending American troops to help save 2 million Somalis from starvation ask: How does this crisis on the Horn of Africa concern our national interest? This is the wrong question. It may have been right in the old world order of international anarchy. But this habitual way of thinking is now the greatest impediment to our creating a new, far better kind of world.

For the past year - as thousands have perished from the rule of the gun in Somalia and in the former Yugoslavia - the world community, including the United States, has committed on a global scale the same sin that three decades ago this country contemplated with horror in the matter of Kitty Genovese.

Ms. Genovese, as many will recall, was a woman murdered in New York in the early 1960s. The crime provoked national outrage because of the failure of a number of bystanders to do anything to rescue the woman - even to call the police - during her prolonged agony. They didn't want to get involved. Her plight, in their view, was not any of their concern.

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Their inaction raised the question: What kind of society have we become?

Now that the cold war is over and we are no longer involved in a global chess game, there are probably billions of people that no longer concern us. They can no longer serve as pawns in our struggle against a superpower rival. Neither Somalian starvation nor the "ethnic cleansing" of the Bosnians are central to narrow calculations of our national self-interest.

But if this is the way we decide what concerns us, what kind of society are we? If it is a sin of omission to let our neighbor perish within our societal borders, why is it less a sin for nations to stand by as a whole people - be they Somalis or Bosnians - are wiped out?

Why is it politically dangerous for an American president to risk a handful of American lives to save many thousands of lives of people from the other side of the earth?

It may be a matter of boundaries. In a world where it has frequently been a matter of "us" against "them," we have been brought up to feel a responsibility for someone who is "one of us." Perhaps the time has come, now, when we can afford to recognize that every person on the planet is one of us.

Why now? The very circumstance that makes the world less infused with our immediate self-interest now allows us to bring to the ordering of the planet our higher, selfless interests. With the end of the cold war it becomes possible for the brutal play of anarchy in small arenas like Somalia and Yugoslavia to be overwhelmed by an order of justice imposed by the world community.

How little it would take to save so many! The bullies of Mogadishu will surely retreat in the face of a genuine organized force. And for all the talk of "quagmires," I am convinced that had the world community displayed genuine resolve, instead of mere rhetoric and hand-wringing, the Serbians could have been deterred from their onslaughts. Gunships could have protected Dubrovnik, and airpower could have stopped the assault on Sarajevo.

Crippling habits of thought are also revealed by that recurrent question: Is the US going to be the world's policeman?

No. A Pax Americana would not be a new world order, but a new version of the old game of power.

It is in the interests neither of our nation nor of the world for us to impose our will on weaker countries. Not the US alone, but the world community as a whole must work to substitute justice for the rule of unrestrained force.

The rest of the world, however, is also mired in old habits, and the world community will evidently not move without leadership. No one is better situated to lead than the US, by virtue of both its military and its moral power.

The US can appeal to its fellow nations to join - through the United Nations - in paying the relatively small price it will take to bring salvation to some of the world's most defenseless people and a more benign moral climate to civilization as a whole. At last, now, revealing one of the under-appreciated characteristics of the lame duck presidency, President Bush has exerted such leadership in behalf of Somalia.

The millennium is not at hand. At this point in history, for example, the world community will not force the Chinese to end their tyranny over Tibet. The price of imposing justice would be too high. But it would be a big step forward if we could put just the smaller warlords and tyrants out of business.

Never before in history have the possibilities for significant movement toward a just world order been so great. What a tragedy it would be to squander that opportunity simply for lack of moral courage and vision.

Kitty Genovese's death under the indifferent gaze of her neighbors was a formative event of my youth: I promised myself I would never be such a bystander. At this formative moment in the history of the international system, I hope that our nightly viewing of the dying of Somalis and Bosnians can similarly crystalize the resolve of the world community.

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