THE grisly spectacle of a fallen US soldier being paraded through the streets of Mogadishu in a wheelbarrow evokes anguished memories in most Americans of the Iranian hostage crisis 14 years ago. The sense of humiliation and helplessness is especially galling for a people who pride themselves on being the world's most powerful and generous nation.
Launched less than a year ago as a humanitarian rescue mission, the United States expedition in Somalia has become a debacle, provoking still more violence and disorder than it came to quell. On both sides of the congressional aisle, calls for immediate withdrawal grow more insistent by the day.
The current domestic backlash against US involvement in Somalia raises much deeper questions about the longterm US relationship to UN peacekeeping. The US has historically been wary of committing troops to UN peacekeeping operations and has always insisted on retaining command over any forces it commits. Even in Somalia, where US troops are under nominal UN direction, for practical purposes they operate on their own. The American command also pursues a policy that some nations in the UN mission consider unduly aggressive. The Italian government and some relief agencies have complained that the US contingent is too quick to resort to firepower and has become obsessed with eliminating Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.
This highly militarized and personalized approach has been a persistent weakness of US foreign policy for much of the past generation. And it has only exacerbated the bloodshed on the streets of Mogadishu. Many residents of the city's southern districts now view Americans no longer as saviors but as savages.
Stung by this apparent ingratitude, some in Congress now call for an immediate withdrawal of US troops and have even begun to question American participation in any future UN peacekeeping operations. Traditional political alignments cross one another on this issue. Conservatives who have historically supported assertive military interventions abroad now demand withdrawal, while some liberals who have always criticized US intervention now argue for a continuing American commitment to UN operations in Somalia and elsewhere.
The apparent ironies in this crossover actually reflect a consistency of principle on both sides. Conservatives oppose US engagement in Somalia and Bosnia because they see no compelling US national interest there and resent having to consult with others or constrain their options to use force. Liberals support US engagement in UN operations as a means of strengthening the organization's nonviolent peacekeeping capabilities and taming the aggressive use of American power.
Despite the Clinton administration's avowed commitment to a continued presence in Somalia, congressional pressure will probably force an early withdrawal. It may be the wisest choice, inglorious as the exit may seem. The US presence is doing more harm than good, since its bad example undermines support for US involvement in all United Nations peacekeeping.
Even if the US withdraws ground troops from Somalia, the UN must continue its mission there to avoid the chaos that would surely ensue in its absence. The US should provide substantial financial and logistical support, while ceding responsibility for on-the-ground peacekeeping to the many other nations currently contributing troops to UNISOM. The Security Council needs to reevaluate its entire approach in Somalia, de-emphasizing its pacification strategy, and returning to its original humanitarian mission.
An American withdrawal from Somalia should not, however, be allowed to become a wholesale abandonment of UN peacekeeping. To his credit, President Clinton has gone further than any previous administration in making peacekeeping a bona fide part of American security policy, though the US commitment is still meager for a country of its stature. But in a recent UN speech, the president hedged that commitment with so many provisos that he seemed willing to lend US troops to UN operations only when conditions are stable enough that they are no longer needed. And though he pledged to pay down $500 million of the $800 million American debt to the UN, he declined to say when he would pay the rest and complained that US dues were too high.
GIVEN the bitter American experience in Somalia, it may be best to return to the UN's traditional practice of recruiting peacekeepers only from smaller nations not inclined to resort to the aggressive use of military force. The great powers should focus on providing the essential financial and logistical support that small nations cannot afford. Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton should spearhead a campaign to establish permanent UN forces that recruit civilians from every nation and train them in the nonviolent traditions of UN peacekeeping. As individuals, they would make their own decisions to participate and would thus not be subject to the whims of national politics.
It would be unwise, however, for the US to abandon UN peacekeeping and revert to a unilateral foreign policy. The disparate conflicts that dominate post-cold-war politics don't fall within any narrow definition of national interest, but we ignore them at our peril, and we cannot handle them alone. Like it or not, we now share that responsibility with the entire community of nations. 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.