IT is hard to complain about sending American troops to Somalia. The pictures of starving women and children are so heart-wrenching and the pictures of armed bullies terrorizing the civilian population are so repulsive that civilized conscience demands that something be done. But we also need to recognize that this is a new kind of American military intervention abroad. We need to develop a set of principles about when we will do this and for what purposes. Otherwise, Somalia could turn out to be the fir st step down a slippery slope leading to a quagmire.
The first principle, followed in Somalia, is that this is not a unilateral American action. We are there in the company of other nations, all under the aegis of the United Nations. Beyond this, the matter becomes less clear. We went to Somalia to protect food supplies and the agencies which deliver them to starving Somalis. One would think the logical way to do this would be to take the guns away from the gangs who have been looting the food. But this means that American troops would act like policemen, and we are not the world's police force. American military commanders warn against the long-term problems involved in trying to disarm the population. But there are also long-term problems if you don't disarm the population.
And what do we do about the many other countries where cruelty of one kind or another has become so offensive as to seem intolerable - Yugoslavia, Liberia, Mozambique, Haiti, to mention only a few? It will be noted that a common characteristic of the situation in each of these countries, as well as of Somalia, is the absence of a compelling United States national interest. Where there is no national interest, policy loses its point. This is all the more reason to develop a clear doctrine.
We have established one principle: The US will not act unilaterally. This does not necessarily mean we have to go through the UN. A good regional organization will do just as well. NATO comes to mind with respect to Yugoslavia, and the Organization of American States with respect to Haiti. But NATO has not been able to pull itself together with a Yugoslav policy. The OAS has a policy for Haiti, but it is not working very well.
This points to another problem for the US. Neither the UN nor NATO nor the OAS makes policy in a vacuum. These organizations do not necessarily do what the US wants, but they are heavily influenced by American leadership. So it is not enough to say the US will act only in concert with the UN; the US first has to decide what it wants the UN to do. The first principle here would be that the problem which provokes intervention must be egregious in the extreme. Somalia is a case in point. Yugoslavia is anoth er. And Yugoslavia brings us to the second principle determining intervention: It must be feasible. The objective must be attainable with an effort which is economically affordable and politically supportable. This is a difficult calculation, and reasonable people will get different answers. It has not yet been shown that the Somali intervention is cost-effective, though it may turn out to be. The higher the cost (or difficulty) of the intervention, the greater the provocation should be. This makes it a clo se call in the case of Yugoslavia. It also provides a guideline for policy, but not a clear principle, which is what we have been looking for.
Another guideline is to proceed with caution, because interventions of the Somali type violate some other principles of American foreign policy: Don't intervene in civil wars. Don't try to be the world's police force. Don't try to do for others what they ought to do for themselves.
To summarize: No matter how outraged we may be, intervene only with others and under international auspices. Do it only when there is a high probability of short-term success. Remember that the role of charitable organizations ill-becomes the American armed forces. Let Somalia be an exception rather than a precedent.