Clinton Grapples With US Role Abroad After Somalia Setback

President struggles to avoid a Vietnam-like morass

GRUESOME pictures of American casualties. A ruthless foe, swimming like a fish in his native habitat. A clanging clamor of protest from Congress, questioning US interests in a conflict far from American shores.

As President Clinton struggles to define the United States role in Somalia, he faces the same dilemma that his political hero, John Kennedy, once faced in Vietnam: commit more force to save US troops already in place or cut losses and withdraw, leaving a battered land to its own devices.

The debacle of last Sunday's US raid on a stronghold of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed revealed that the military situation of United Nations peacekeeping troops has deteriorated far more than many US officials had believed. It has turned substantial slices of US public and legislative opinion against the peacekeeping operation.

If nothing else, the shock of military reversal in Somalia has ensured that any further deployment of US troops in world peacekeeping missions will be very controversial - especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

``This has created the opportunity for isolationists to discredit President Clinton's foreign policy,'' says Alberto Coll, a US Naval War College professor and former Bush defense official.

Mr. Coll, who was in on the beginning of the Somalia operation, faults his Clinton counterparts for allowing the UN to expand the mission's scope to include nation-rebuilding. But he lauds Mr. Clinton's original internationalist commitment, which he now feels is under siege.

As of this writing, Clinton was set to meet with top advisers and weigh US military options. Indications were that a precipitous US withdrawal is unlikely, but that US officials were also increasingly concerned about operating their forces within a UN military structure.

In a newspaper interview Tuesday in California, Clinton said many non-US peacekeepers are afraid to leave ``their own area and don't exactly follow the orders'' of top UN commanders.

From a military point of view, the position of US forces in Mogadishu is clearly quite bad. With mines and hit-and-run attacks, Somali gunmen had already gradually closed many city streets to UN patrols. Now their evident ability to down US helicopters has eliminated the last US means of quick mobility.

Pinned down in fortified fire bases by a technologically inferior but tactically superior foe, the situation of the relatively small 4,700-member US contingent sounds much like that of US forces in Indochina decades ago.

The Pentagon put the best face on Monday's decision to send a further Army mechanized infantry company with armored vehicles to Mogadishu. Spokeswoman Kathleen deLaski said the move was not a military escalation but an expansion of ``a menu of possibilities'' for commanders.

Among the capabilities the infantry company will add are night-fighting equipment and ``some capability to move through the streets unimpeded,'' said Ms. deLaski - an apparent implicit admission of the force's current dire straits.

THE problem is that so far the administration is ``piecemealing'' this problem, says one Pentagon consultant. When there were 28,000 US troops there at the height of the operation, the US had little trouble controlling action. Some analysts say that Clinton's best choice now is to go back in - big.

``It would be better to bring more in, then get out,'' says Patrick Glynn, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who opposed the Somali intervention to begin with.

Otherwise, tinhorn tyrants around the world will feel they can drive the US out of any situation by dragging US bodies by a rope and televising it on CNN, Mr. Glynn says. That's not to mention the fact that the UN operation might fall apart and Somalia revert to chaos if the US left.

But a number of members of Congress are beginning to raise their voices against the operation. They say it is because their offices are receiving many angry phone calls from constituents. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said he received 400 calls in favor of leaving, and only two in favor of staying.

Whatever Clinton decides on Somalia, key senators now insist that any deployment of US peackeepers to Bosnia would have to be preceded by a congressional vote.

Though Bosnian negotiations continue to stall just short of agreement, the Clinton administration has indicated a willingness to send 25,000 troops to police any peace pact. That's far too many, said the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

``It's just too high a proportion of the . . . total,'' said chairman Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.

The irony is that even the estimated 50,000 total UN force needed for Bosnia may not be enough. The US experience in Somalia has shown that massive initial deployments are important.

``To really prevent conflicts from snowballing you need a large presence,'' says Jarat Chopra, a scholar of peacekeeping operations at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

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