IN deciding to commit US troops to safeguard food deliveries in Somalia, President Bush has ignored the expert advice of one of the senior United States diplomats in East Africa.
United States Ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone expressed serious doubts about the nature and duration of the US military intervention - as did some officials in the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon.
But the White House was in no mood to listen.
In rapid-fire actions, the National Security Council, then President Bush, agreed to what could become an open-ended commitment that President-elect Clinton will inherit on Jan. 20.
The whole operation was launched in a "haphazard" way with many unanswered questions and a playing down of objections, a senior US official says.
Now, as US Marines enter Somalia, some in Congress are calling for an investigation into the doubts raised by senior US officials in private reports. And relief officials in the region worry that the deployment could harm food assistance networks already in place in Somalia.
According to the leaked Dec. 2 cable, Mr. Hempstone raised these concerns:
* Getting food deliveries restored, safe from looters, will probably not take long, or be very difficult. But, what, he asked, will the military do then?
* Troops will be vulnerable to sniper attacks and mines; some troops are likely to be killed. How will the military react?
* A Western nation taking charge in a Muslim nation could provoke a backlash from Muslims outside the country.
* The operation might "reunite the Somalia nation against [the US], the invaders, the outsiders ... who may have fed their children but also have killed their young men."
Some officials in the Pentagon and CIA, speaking privately with reporters, have expressed similar concerns about the operation.
But once the decision to go in was made, top administration officials took care to show a united front. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney voiced solid support for the policy. Hempstone said he "fully supports" the decision.
Hempstone's cable to the State Department, written at the request of the department, was sent just before Bush made his decision. One senior US official says it may have been leaked by Pentagon officials trying to get the White House to listen to the concerns of someone physically much closer to the scene.
An appearance by Hempstone before Congress to explain his concerns must be approved by the State Department. So far, both top State officials and Defense Secretary Cheney have sought to minimize the importance of the envoy's points.
Asked about the contents of the cable, for example, Cheney said Hempstone "doesn't know the area." And, Cheney added, on NBC's Dec. 6 Meet the Press, Hempstone "was opposed even to providing humanitarian supplies" to Somalis.
Neither of Cheney's points are supported by the record.
Hempstone, who has been ambassador to Kenya for three years, has been forced to keep a close eye on developments in neighboring Somalia for a practical reason: Tens of thousands of Somali refugees have streamed into Kenya over the past two years. Armed Somali bandits terrorize some Kenyan areas along the Kenya/Somali border. Most of the relief operations for Somalia are based in Kenya.
Contrary to Cheney's comment about Hempstone not backing assistance to Somalis, Hempstone, a senior US official says, helped US relief agencies get situated in Somalia long before the military option was discussed.
Western relief officials in the region said success in protecting food deliveries depended largely on the deployment process.
They warned that if the deployment is not carried out simultaneously in key famine-stricken towns, armed Somali looters might launch a new round of looting and violence.
If the Marines try to take over food deliveries, they said, instead of working with existing relief agencies and their Somali contacts, the military operation could undermine those relief networks.
The deployment of Marines is taking place "based on a gross misrepresentation of realities in Somalia," argues Alex de Waal, a former associate director of Africa Watch who resigned in protest over the deployment. "All these delicate webs of agreements and contracts that have been established" by some relief agencies with Somali clans will "go up in a puff of smoke" when the Marines arrive.
Further, trying to disarm rebel factions may be an unrealistic goal that could have unforeseen political effects.
One analyst says disarmament might leave weaker Somali clans more vulnerable to manipulation by stronger ones.
Ken Hackett, Catholic Relief Services regional director for East Africa, says the Marines should not take over food delivery, but confine themselves to such tasks as controlling looters and civil services such as the postal system, a police force, and airport operations.