WASHINGTON — AS the United States struggles to define its role in Haiti under the loose approval of the United Nations, Washington officials and experienced UN hands worry that their partnership in peacekeeping is becoming a costly experiment in resolving world conflicts in both lives and money.
The dilemma is being played out on the streets of Haiti as US soldiers try to figure out, moment by moment, how much authority to impose over street violence and Haitian forces during an awkward US occupation.
Earlier this week, US soldiers, sent to restore democracy and ensure human rights, stood by as Haitian police beat civilians.
Defining the limits of both peacekeeping and peacemaking - two different UN roles - may become even more difficult in the months ahead as the US plans to turn over its role to multinational forces under UN command in a so-called Phase II.
``I am worried that there will be confusion between the US and the UN over who's in charge - as it happened in Somalia - and that there will not be clearly defined objectives,'' says Mohamed Sahnoun, who left his post as special representative to Somalia in 1992 after a stormy controversy with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Already the US and the UN have clashed in the Haitian crisis. Dante Caputo, the special UN envoy for Haiti, resigned after not being consulted during the 11th-hour negotiations between former President Carter and Haitian military leaders.
After 18 US Rangers were killed in 1992 during a frantic search for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed, polls showed a dramatic drop in US public support for UN peacekeeping.
Wary of another backlash during the Haitian operation, President Clinton ``is coming in the back door to build popular support for a US role in a UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti,'' says Tom Pfeiffer, editor of Peacekeeping Monitor, a newsletter published in Washington. ``Once troops are on the ground, he knows that the public will have to support him.'' But given the problems, ``it's easy to derail a UN operation.''
Washington will try to avoid this at all costs, he says, adding that the Pentagon is keenly aware ``that a replay on the TV evening news of what happened in Somalia would be a disaster.''
On Monday, Mr. Clinton will speak at the opening session of the UN General Assembly, further defining the US relationship with the world body.
But while peacekeeping is far less costly than war, can the US afford to do it under UN auspices?
US officials say they are troubled by the UN's ``reckless'' spending of member-supplied money (the US pays for almost a third of peacekeeping operations), a management system that is largely unaccountable for how it puts together and pays for staffing and supplies, and US-UN power struggles.
There are 16 UN peacekeeping missions operating around the world - Haiti will be the 17th - at a cost of more than $3 billion a year. Working with the UN has presented a host of problems in the past, many of which were documented by the Clinton administration in its own peacekeeping- policy review begun in 1993.
Despite Clinton's issuance in June of strict guidelines designed to redress problems, such as making UN peacekeeping expenditures transparent, putting US troops under the exclusive control of US military command, and setting a termination date before beginning the peacekeeping mission, few believe the US will achieve these goals.
Yet when Clinton addresses the General Assembly, the US will be within days of erasing its $1.2 billion debt to the UN, money withheld because of alleged UN incompetence. Congress, which approved the funding in August, has not yet set aside funds for the US portion of upcoming UN costs in Haiti, estimated at $400 million for the next year.
``The whole way the UN does business is overwhelmingly costly,'' says a senior UN budget official, ``including its [noncompetitive] procurement process, its double charges for salaries and allowances for people already in New York [headquarters] who are sent to the field, and its extravagant travel allowances.''
These excesses will be exaggerated with peacekeeping in Haiti, says the UN official. ``Because the UN Secretariat is aware of the US strategic interest in Haiti, they'll milk the US for a lot more funds.''
Recognizing Washington's desires to reduce budgets will be secondary to its political concerns of championing Haitian democracy, he says, ``the UN will inflate the budget for the operation.''
``The UN has had no auditors and disburses a lot of money; its Security Council and the General Assembly did not have any means to investigate management, so questions of corruption exist,'' says Mr. Sahnoun, the former UN special representative to Somalia.
There is hope that the recent establishment of a secretary-general-appointed UN Office of Internal Oversight Services - a US demand - will change this situation. A Pentagon official believes ``things are improving,'' and a US State Department official expects ``an independent inspector general to shake up the UN culture that has not been attuned to accountability.''