THERE are defining events and crises in international affairs. Bosnia is one. So is Somalia. Haiti may be a third.
What our nation's leaders do or do not do about these compelling issues should define them, too. That we have only belatedly begun airlifting food assistance to dying Somalis, that we have wrung our hands over Bosnia, and that we have wittingly and unwittingly pauperized and repressed Haiti say all that needs to be said about Washington's failures.
Somalia is far away, especially in an election year when so much is going badly at home. But up to half of Somalia's 5 million population is starving, and has been at risk from famine, death, and war - three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse - for almost a year. More than 1 million Somalis have fled their country and 1,000 refugees a day are still crossing into neighboring Kenya.
Why did it take bullying by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to energize American officialdom? Or was it the relentless stream of press reporting about the horrors of Mogadishu and other Somali towns? Now, months after an American or an American-initiated multilateral initiative might have preserved some semblance of civil order in Somalia, or at least helped some Somalis escape death, we are at last active.
Should we have acted alone, if necessary? Should the world's remaining superpower have taken the burden of Somalia on its own shoulders? Generally, we have learned since Vietnam not to interfere cavalierly. Yet Grenada and Panama were special cases. Somalia, admittedly distant and outside of our orbit, should well have been another, and on clear moral grounds.
We cannot idly stand aside and permit endless killing fields. We have a moral obligation as a nation to intervene in extreme, strongly delineated cases. Somalia surely was such a case months ago, and it continues to command our attention. To save lives and restore order, George Bush should order the intervention of American troops or, better, encourage our military cooperation in an expedition sponsored by the Organization of African Unity. President Bush should care that Somalia is disappearing.
Bosnia also cries out for action. If the Europeans will not or cannot act, then we must - even though the White House and the State Department fear sinking in the endless morass of another Vietnam. No American government should be standing on the sidelines when ethnic cleansing continues, howitzers shell Sarajevo, and Bosnia (like so much of Croatia) is being reduced to rubble.
What does it take for Bush to act? We have the means. We ought to have the Desert Storm experience. And the moral imperative is clear. When will Washington push aside the excuses, all perfectly plausible but beside the point?
If we prefer to alter Serbian behavior by imposing tight sanctions, then the least we should do is to make sure that they are watertight.
So far, however, the Euro-American boycott of Serbia has been slow to bite. And it is no longer certain that the boycott of Serbia will have any decisive impact on the warlordism, fighting, and concentration camps in Bosnia itself. In Bosnia as in Somalia, leaders are defined by when and how they act as well as by their refusals to act.
AS to Haiti, the US responded ideally hours after the Sept. 30, 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by urging sanctions.
We joined the Organization of American States in clamping an embargo on the country. President Aristide had been the first freely elected Haitian chief executive since 1958, and an overwhelmingly popular choice.
But the boycott was easy to evade, and Washington seemed unwilling or unable to make it work. The great mass of poor Haitians soon suffered from shortages of fuel as factories shut down and commerce slowed. Poverty and hunger intensified in the countryside as well as in the cities. But the ruling junta and the wealthy business classes managed to circumvent the boycott.
Almost a year later, the military ruling establishment in Haiti is stronger than it was, the poor are poorer and more desperate, and Aristide is still exiled in Venezuela despite many high-level attempts to negotiate his return.
Meanwhile, too, nearly 40,000 Haitians have fled their country in leaky boats and died or been returned home by the United States Coast Guard.
The results of Bush's well-intended but poorly conceived and executed policy have been killings and continued repression in Haiti, continued drug smuggling by the junta and forces close to the junta, the flight and enforced repatriation of at-risk, mostly illiterate Haitians without much hope or resources, and the prospect of more of the same indefinitely. Moreover, the failure to welcome the fleeing Haitians has sullied the moral meaning of our country.
It is too much to ask a beleaguered president in a trying year to solve all of these crises at once, and before November. He should have acted earlier, and more decisively.
But the very least the American people should demand now is that he stanch the flow of blood in Bosnia and succor the Somalis fully. For Bush, the defining moment has almost passed.