THE WORLD FROM...the United Nations

Bush's offer to have US troops lead a humanitarian mission to Somalia comes at a perfect time for the UN

THE Bush Administration's offer to the United Nations to send Marines to Somalia to ensure delivery of relief supplies helps not only the Somalis but the UN itself.

The US pitch on Somalia was quickly accepted last week by the UN Security Council, giving the UN a new vitality and can-do confidence just when the organization most needs them.

Key personnel are stretched thin as the UN tries to ride herd on a growing number of ethnic conflicts. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has had to prod nations to pay their bills and contribute troops. Any proposal for UN action requires strong political leadership and a broad consensus. And as the only superpower, the US must be aboard if not in the lead.

A few nonaligned members of the Security Council grumbled at Washington's insistence that US troops remain under US command. They say the Council was moving toward greater protection for Somali relief efforts anyway. "Why did the US have to interfere?" a diplomat asks.

Still, along with such complaints, there is a palpable sense of relief here that something at last is being done on a scale, and at a speed, that could make a difference. About 500 UN peacekeeping troops from Pakistan were stuck in their Somali barracks for most of the fall because clan leaders could not agree where they should be stationed. Other long-authorized UN troops have not yet arrived in the capital of Mogadishu.

The new enforcement action, taken under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, opens a new chapter for UN intervention in a country on humanitarian grounds. Yet many unanswered questions remain, ranging from determining how Somali factions will be disarmed to just how a workable political agreement will be reached among so many warring factions.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali, however, is described by a longtime friend as "basically satisfied" with the US offer. The secretary-general criticized the Council last summer for focusing more UN attention and dollars on fighting in the former Yugoslavia than on Somalia where the number dying had been proportionately far higher.

Deep UN involvement in one case inevitably leads to charges of favoritism and pressure to act in other conflicts. Many Africans and Latinos want more UN help for Liberia and Haiti. Muslim governments say the UN must do more to help Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But many conflicts in which the UN is involved do not proceed or end as neatly as diplomats sometimes predict. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge guerrillas refuse to disarm or allow voters to register in Khmer territory for spring elections. Continued fighting by Jonas Savimbi's rebels following recent elections in Angola has prompted Margaret Anstee, the top UN official in Luanda, to return to the UN for talks this week.

The US also still owes the UN nearly $200 million in back dues and peacekeeping assessments and is calling for more reforms in exchange for the cash. That leaves many diplomats wondering how US President-elect Clinton will play his UN card. Clovis Maksoud, a former ambassador to the UN from the League of Arab States, says he hopes the new administration will be more "deferential" to the UN. The US, he says, should settle for being an "eminent" rather than a "dominant" UN member.

Yet the US is sure to remain a major UN player. As President Bush explained his Somalia offer: "Some crises in the world can't be resolved without American involvement."

Once again the UN has a renewed sense of what it is capable of when the need is great - and when members that have the needed resources find the political will to do the job.

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