IN his inaugural address, President Clinton stated: "When our vital interests are challenged or the will and conscience of the international community are defied, we will act - with peaceful diplomacy wherever possible, with force when necessary." In his reference to the use of force, Mr. Clinton undoubtedly wished to appear no less resolute than his predecessor.
The experience of the last few months of the Bush era, however, whether in Iraq, Somalia, or Bosnia, casts considerable doubt on the readiness of publics in the United States and Western Europe to use force at levels likely to achieve substantial results. Peaceful diplomacy may become the only option.
Air raids against Iraq were designed to force Saddam Hussein to permit the unrestricted inspection of weapons facilities and to cease deterrent actions against patrols in the no-fly zones. Reports from the United Nations and Baghdad indicate that at least the first objective may have been achieved. Other reports suggest that the raids may have temporarily enhanced Saddam's position in Iraq and reduced support for US actions among European and Middle Eastern allies.
In Somalia, the US forces have, for the moment, stabilized the situation. But doubts still exist about the capacity of the UN to mobilize forces to replace the Americans or to restructure the Somali government. The outgoing US administration appeared to be moving toward the use of aerial bombing to enforce a no-fly zone in Bosnia, but refrained, primarily because of the opposition of its principal European allies, the British and the French.
In each of these cases, strong pressures for the limited use of force by those understandably sympathetic with the victims have been accompanied by proponents' assurances that the action would achieve proclaimed objectives: Somali gunmen would fade away in the face of the Marines; Saddam would be cowed if not overthrown; only a few bombs on Serb positions would be needed to bring the Serbian leaders to their senses.
The threat of force can be an effective tactic in negotiations, but if not carried out or, if carried out ineffectively, the tactic backfires. And increasingly, US threats to use force in international crises are becoming hollow.
The hard fact is that Western publics are not prepared to support effective levels of force under present international circumstances. In the Gulf war, as in other wars, major objectives could not be achieved without extensive use of ground forces, and ground forces mean a greater risk of casualties. A deep reluctance exists in the US and its principal Western allies to undertake any action that will risk large casualties unless the individual nations appear to be under direct threat. Proponents of milit ary action, nevertheless, insist that desired results can be accomplished with minimum casualties through the use of air power. In so doing, they seriously overestimate the accuracy and effectiveness of air power, underestimate the political impact - on populations and on allies, and give misleading encouragement of support to victims.
Proponents of aerial action against the Bosnian Serbs, for example, insist that artillery positions can be destroyed from the air, but they do not acknowledge the difficulty air forces have experienced in attempting to take out mobile anti-aircraft positions in Iraq. Gen. Colin Powell has rightly claimed that substantial forces may be needed to bring an end to threats and conflict in unsettled regions. He also stresses that if partial measures are to be taken, the question must be squarely faced: What wi ll be done if those measures fail? Proponents of limited actions have seldom ventured an answer.
If the estimate is correct that the people of the US and other Western countries are not prepared to use sufficient force to achieve substantial objectives in areas of conflict, the world community has few alternatives to diplomatic efforts to resolve crises.
Former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen have been severely criticized for continuing to negotiate with the leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. But, in the face of broad reluctance to use major force and unrealistic prophecies regarding the utility of partial military measures, do the organizations they represent have any choice but to continue the grueling, frustrating efforts to use the pressures of economic sanctions and global isolation to end the b loodshed?