THE United States is learning what it means to be the superpower: casualties, kicks, anxiety, and little thanks. Small wonder that some would prefer not to be super, as though we had a choice. Pearl Harbor is the reminder once and for all that the US cannot sit out history. The trouble with the present historical period is that it sets no great, dramatic markers to clarify the mind and steel the soul; it is full of nasty little ambiguities.
Somalia is a great learning experience, although there is little sign that we are profiting from it. The tragic setback of Black Sunday, Oct. 3, a firefight in southern Mogadishu in which at least 15 American soldiers were killed and scores wounded, brought anguished cries for immediate withdrawal. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was accused of making the Somali operation an obsessive feud with the chief villain, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, at the expense of US blood.
Just as the Gulf war began in an intelligence fog, the US had no idea that in Somalia it was walking into a civil war of peculiar ferocity. By December 1992, the American public, horrified by the mass starvation on its TV screens, clamored for action. President Bush's huge military aid operation was immensely popular. Truly, this was an assault on the forces of evil, the gangsters who literally stole food from the starving. The fatal mistake was failing to seize at once their heavy weapons. General Aideed, the most active and ambitious of the warlords, waited out the departure of the main American force and then declared war on the United Nations operation. His radio station pumped out incendiary propaganda. A force of Pakistani blue helmets, sent to shut it down, was ambushed; 24 men were killed in cold blood. The US joined the other members of the UN Security Council in demanding the arrest, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible. One US draft in September proposed mentioning Aideed by name. Four hundred Rangers were sent to Mogadishu, ostensibly to ``get'' him. Once again, the US intelligence was deaf, dumb, and blind. The victims of Black Sunday were, as it additionally turned out, inadequately armed for an urban warfare mission. One State Department official admitted that there was no hard evidence that Aideed was even in Mogadishu.
The furious criticism then thrown at the UN in the US Congress and the press largely missed the mark. The notion that the secretary-general can stage a manhunt with troops of member countries is ridiculous. He commands no army. ``UN Command,'' as applied to Somalia, is a figure of speech. The chief UN official there is an American, retired Adm. Jonathan Howe. A Turkish general, borrowed from NATO, is the force commander. The UN force includes 21,000 troops from 27 countries, but the operations chief is an American. US troops operate tactically only under US orders. The US Quick Reaction Force is not part of the UN force but is on-call in an emergency. It was not called on Oct. 3.
As for the charge that UNOSOM II, the UN operation in Somalia, has resisted American entreaties to pursue reconciliation, much of the UN's effort has gone into precisely that. It has engaged 12 of Somalia's 15 clans and some of Aideed's people in a political dialogue. The 12 are reportedly largely disarmed. Most of Somalia is returning to economic and social normality and would be farther along if the member states gave the necessary money.
Cries of Vietnam, thoroughly inappropriate, lend urgency to the demand for withdrawal. The call for a micro-precise definition of US goals and interests ignores the fact that, by its nature, conflict is unpredictable. Setting a certain date to leave Somalia is risky and unnecessary. Would President Clinton keep troops there a day longer than needed? Is this a message that he is not trusted even by his own people?
The jingoism in the charge that the administration had ceded American leadership to the UN is not only false but also unworthy of a great power. The UN is the creation of the US. For all of its and its members' shortcomings, it can give American policy an added dimension. In this new world, with untidy confrontation the order of the day, peace enforcement - with casualties and confusion - is part of the scene. Going it alone is folly. Not even the biggest flagwaver on Capitol Hill proposes that Haiti, the next episode, be handled by an entirely American force. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.