WASHINGTON — President Clinton's tentative decision to send US troops to volatile Central Africa embodies a delicate balancing act.
On the one hand, the White House wants to live up to international expectations that the US is the world's leading superpower. Only the US military has the airlift and logistics capabilities needed to get massive food and medicine shipments to an estimated 1 million hard-pressed refugees - though Canada is actually leading the expedition.
On the other hand, Mr. Clinton wants to avoid a debacle at the onset of his second term similar to the much-criticized 1993 American-led mission to Somalia. The legacy of Somalia and the end of the cold war have imposed constraints on US interventions abroad that are reflected in the strict conditions Clinton has set for US participation in Zaire.
These conditions include keeping American troops under US command, limiting the number to be deployed on the ground, giving them wide latitude and heavy weaponry to defend themselves, and keeping them out of fighting between Tutsi rebels and the Zairean Army. Clinton also wants the operation's goals and four-month duration clearly stated. Finally, the combatants and neighboring states will have to give non-interference pledges.
"You don't send a military force just to do something. You make sure there is an achievable goal," says an administration official on condition of anonymity. "We have to have something that is well-planned and effective."
In the end, saving human lives has outweighed any grave misgivings the Clinton administration harbors over the Central Africa effort.
"Our interests here are largely humanitarian," said White House spokesman Michael McCurry when the decision was first announced.
Still the US insistence on in-depth planning and firm ground rules, experts say, are Somalia's lessons. The loss of American lives in an overly ambitious mission that failed to account for Somalia's turbulent tribal politics has made Washington deeply wary of another African peacekeeping operation.
"The lessons from Somalia are about making sure we know exactly what we are doing," says the administration official.
Marina Ottaway, an Africa expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, agrees: "With Somalia, there was an illusion ... there could be a pretty clear cut intervention. But it became the morass that we know. So I think there is tremendous hesitation to get involved [in Zaire] now."
US interests in Zaire?
The administration's concerns also reflect a post-cold-war reluctance by the military, politicians, and public to risk American lives in missions in which national security isn't clearly at stake. That position has been reinforced by major military cutbacks and Pentagon budget constraints.
In the case of intervention in Africa, the US has few compelling economic or political interests, experts say. In addition, most Americans take little or no interest in Africa.
"You cannot say that if the chaos in eastern Zaire continues, there are American companies that will lose important markets. The African market is negligible," says Professor Ottaway. "The reasons for getting involved are moral."
The administration used moral arguments to justify joining the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. But it was also able to cite the question of US leadership of NATO and the need to keep Europe secure against a resurgence of the feuds that sucked America into two wars this century. Furthermore, Washington agreed to take part in the NATO force only after Bosnian foes signed a peace settlement.
In Zaire there appears scant prospect for a peace accord any time soon. The country is lurching into anarchy as the army fights to retake territory from Tutsi rebels amid a power vacuum created by the absence of the ailing dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in Europe recovering from surgery. The Zairean army has been joined by Hutu militias that fled neighboring Rwanda after slaughtering some 500,000 Tutsis in 1994; Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated army is backing its brethren in eastern Zaire.
The aid mission
In Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, a spokesman for Mr. Mobutu says the government in principle would agree to the multinational rescue effort. But Kabuya-Lumuna Sando adds the mission "shouldn't be limited to humanitarian aid" and should be "broadened" to include refugee repatriation.
A plan considered yesterday by the United Nations Security Council calls for a multinational force led by Canada to protect and deliver aid deliveries. The US wants African states to participate alongside Western powers. The operation could begin as early as next week.
The United States would airlift other countries' ground forces into the region. An estimated 1,000 US troops would also secure the airport in Goma, in eastern Zaire, for the delivery of humanitarian aid and guard a three-mile corridor from the facility to the Rwandan border that refugees could use for voluntary repatriation.
The contingent would be heavily armed, have "robust" rules of engagement to ensure self defense, and be protected by helicopter gunships. Up to 3,000 other US troops would be deployed in nearby countries to support the operation.