WITHOUT question the Clinton administration has committed its share of blunders in Somalia. But the notion being peddled by former President Bush, his defense secretary Dick Cheney, and others that Mr. Clinton took a sharply defined, limited United States commitment to humanitarian relief and transformed it into an open-ended program of ``nation-building,'' simply won't wash.
From the earliest days of the venture, top Bush administration officials, including Mr. Cheney, recognized that the initial effort to secure the food-distribution network and end acute starvation would require the most intensive commitment of US troops. But they also recognized and stated plainly that this would be followed by a lengthier period during which UN forces - assisted by a residual US military presence - would attempt to revive Somalian political and security institutions that could prevent the country from sliding back into chaos.
This was made clear by Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at their Pentagon briefing Dec. 4, 1992, the day President Bush announced the intervention in Somalia. General Powell explained, ``We have certain unique capabilities in the armed forces of the United States that don't exist in many other armed forces, so it may be necessary, in order to support our friends, to leave a few units, some residual personnel.''
Powell was referring not only to forces with expertise in intelligence, communications, and logistics, but also with the ability to react quickly in the event of a crisis. At the same briefing, Cheney said, ``Perhaps we leave a Marine amphibious-ready group off the coast, ready to come to the rescue if a more difficult circumstance develops. But it doesn't require continued US force on the ground.''
In Somalia, things were far more fluid than the recollections of those then in power now suggest. On Jan. 6, the day I arrived in Mogadishu on a two-week assignment for ABC News, a Marine patrol I was accompanying came under fire from snipers believed to be affiliated with Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. The following morning, US Cobra helicopters retaliated for this and other incidents by firing tow missiles and cannons at weapons supplies kept by General Aideed's forces at one of several ``cantonment'' areas designated by the leading factional armies under an agreement brokered by Amb. Robert Oakley.
During that same period, Mr. Oakley was pressing UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a firm commitment on a date for the transition from a US to a UN command. Mr. Oakley hoped to have the agreement in hand by Inauguration Day in order to have a clean handover of the issue from the Bush to the Clinton administration. But Mr. Boutros-Ghali dragged his feet for months, in part because he was having trouble rounding up the required forces and, in part, because he hoped to persuade the US to move more aggressively to confiscate weapons from the factions before the bulk of the United Nations forces arrived.
Cheney would later suggest that Washington flatly refused to get into the business of weapons confiscation. In fact, the White House followed a more complex and ambiguous approach. The US did shun major operations designed to seize or destroy the weapons. At the same time, US representatives in Mogadishu tried to get the factions to store all or most of their ``technicals'' (vans mounted with machine guns), artillery pieces, and other big weapons in the cantonments, ostensibly to become part of the arsenal of some future Somalian national force, but in reality, to rot long before such an army came into being.
In addition, US forces frequently raided suspected weapons caches in the Mogadishu area, attempted to trade rice for guns, outlawed weapons on the streets of the city, and generally tried to extend security block by block, beginning with the areas immediately around the US embassy compound and the football stadium where large numbers of US troops were bivouacked.
The approach failed in all particulars. The cantonments never became more than convenient storage areas from which Aideed's forces and those of the other factional leaders could retrieve their weapons at will.
The weapons searches were viewed as deeply threatening by Aideed and eventually produced the June 5 attack against Pakistani troops, allegedly committed by his forces. Over the months, the streets of Mogadishu became less rather than more secure.
The US humanitarian operation evolved into precisely the sort of arrangement outlined by Cheney and Powell - with UN peacekeepers replacing about 80 percent of the US contingent and the US leaving behind the 5,000 to 6,000 support and quick-reaction forces.
No one can deny that the Clinton administration's reaction to the ambush of Pakistani troops established the context for the tragic, humiliating Mogadishu events of recent weeks. But it is also clear that the Bush administration left its successor with a mission that was well defined only in its early humanitarian relief stage, a follow-on commitment to assist UN peacekeepers that was vague and bereft of any ``exit strategy,'' and an approach on the ground that had already generated conflict with Aideed and was nearly certain to generate more in the months ahead.
The Monday morning quarterbacking of Bush team members would be far more persuasive had they done a better job calling the signals on Sunday afternoon. 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.