IF you see two boys pummeling each other in the street, the proper way to make peace is to step in and impartially pull them apart. Adults seldom take the side of one child and help finish the other off.
Both the United States and the United Nations typically begin from a similar principle when they approach peacekeeping operations. It's a policy that sounds like common sense: Intervention in wars and civil conflicts should be impartial and should involve only a limited use of force.
But fighting factions are not children, nor international peacekeepers analogous to adults. The temptation to be prudent, even-handed, and restrained in peacekeeping situations such as Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina should be resisted, according to Prof. Richard Betts of Columbia University in New York.
Impartiality makes sense when the UN or some big power sends peacekeepers simply to bless a cease-fire that combatants have already accepted. But it doesn't work in today's messy situations where order has broken down and fighting continues, argues Mr. Betts in an upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
``The attempt to be both impartial and limited in intervention is a mistake,'' says Betts.
War, he says, is about who rules when the smoke clears.
Many diplomats in the West may forget this, or ignore it, and believe that by even-handedly enforcing a halt in bitter fighting, both sides will realize that to take up the gun was a grievous error.
Such a peacekeeping attitude can in fact hurt the innocent bystanders it is meant to help, according to Betts.
Bosnia is a case in point. The presence of UN troops has prolonged that war, by preventing Bosnian Serbs from winning on the battlefield. At the same time, the UN force is far too weak to stop all fighting.
The result has been steady attrition, continued ethnic cleansing, and diplomatic initiatives that reflect little of the realities on the ground.
In Somalia, the US eventually tilted against one actor in the drama: Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. But it stopped short of seizing control and imposing a settlement on fighting tribes, Betts points out.
Even in Haiti, where the US took sides from the beginning, the initially limited approach of economic sanctions did little to topple the Haitian junta. That job was accomplished by the threat of a US invasion.
``The many months during which sanctions were left to work were used by the junta to track down and murder Aristide supporters at a steady pace,'' writes Betts.
The professor's purpose is not to warn off big powers from all peacekeeping operations. Rather, it is to argue for caution. Perhaps peacekeeping works only if it is not impartial, as eventually was the case in Haiti, or if it is a massive operation that overwhelms the country, like the UN operation in Cambodia.
When deciding whether to intervene, policymakers should keep certain principles in mind, according to Betts. Among them:
* Recognize that to make peace is to decide who rules.
* Avoid half-measures.
* Do not confuse peace with justice.