YOU would think that after American-led forces risked their necks and got the Somalia relief operation moving again, the United Nations could move in and finish the job. Yet weeks drag by, tensions rise, tempers flare, more marines get hurt, and departure dates get pushed back again and again.
Why the delay? Now that the hard part has been done, why are UN officials dragging their feet?
The answer lies not in Mogadishu, but at UN headquarters in New York, where officials are carefully hammering out terms and conditions for transferring responsibility from the United States to UN military commanders and political authorities. The outcome of the New York negotiations could radically change the character of UN peacekeeping operations, not only in Somalia but in a dozen other nation-state crises from Angola and Bosnia to Zaire.
Precedents set in Somalia could be far-reaching. In shaping ground rules for the handoff there, negotiators are redefining the concept of national sovereignty in post-cold-war terms, redrawing its limits to reflect the world community's growing concern for the innocent victims of civil disorder and its frustration over glaring weaknesses in UN peacekeeping. Up to now, effective UN action in trouble spots like Somalia has been handcuffed by Charter provisions that prevent the organization from applying ar med force to curb conflicts that are essentially internal in character. This has made UN attempts at peacekeeping appear half-hearted and weak-willed.
However, if Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has his way, Somalia could turn out to be different, and UN peacekeeping activity could become a lot more muscular and intrusive.
The present tug-of-war between Washington and the secretary-general's staff over when and how to transfer responsibilities in Somalia looks like another example of can-do Americans frustrated by international bureaucrats. But the Security Council has already saddled the secretary-general's meager peacekeeping staff with more than a dozen similar crises around the world, and Mr. Boutros-Ghali is keenly aware that present UN peacekeeping machinery and finances are unequal to the task. With no taste for ano ther costly embarrassment, he is using the Mogadishu hand-over to test just how serious the US and its coalition allies are about preventing social collapse in places like Somalia.
To Washington's credit, the Clinton administration seems to be buying into the bolder option, one that would give the secretary-general and UN commanders unprecedented authority to impose order and enforce Security Council resolutions in Somalia, notwithstanding doubts about whether such authority squares with principles of nonintervention enshrined in the UN Charter.
AMERICAN officials here share Boutros-Ghali's blunt awareness that without tougher enforcement authority, UN commanders will be unable to keep the peace after US combat troops leave.
It was this kind of authority that was embarrassingly lacking when UN security forces from Pakistan first arrived in Mogadishu last September and found themselves unable even to ensure their own safety, never mind that of Red Cross and other relief workers. As a conventional peacekeeping mission, UNOSOM was a failure from the start, partly because there was no peace to be kept and no chance the warring factions would voluntarily lay down their arms, but also because the Pakistanis lacked the mandate they
needed to impose order.
Mercifully, the UN operation was overshadowed by Operation Restore Hope, politically as well as militarily, as soon as the Marines waded ashore Dec. 9.
UNOSOM II is now shaping up to be a very different operation. If all goes according to plan, it will look and act more like Operation Restore Hope itself than a conventional UN peacekeeping mission. On the ground, there should be almost no sudden change. An overall UN military commander, a Turkish general whom Boutros-Ghali chose with Washington's concurrence, will take charge gradually over the next three to six months. His deputy will be an American officer.
Turnover of military command and control at the regional level will occur in stages, as a semblance of normalcy is achieved in each region according to bench marks now being negotiated.
As US combat forces withdraw, their positions will mostly be taken by troops from other countries already in place as participants in the US-led Unified Task Force. A major contingent of noncombat US forces, probably some 5,000 troops, will remain in Somalia to provide logistical support and crucial financial underwriting to the UN command.
But the key difference will lie in the tough new mandate UNOSOM II is expected to receive from the Security Council. Both Washington and the UN recognize that Somalia is far from "pacified" after barely three months' occupation by American-led forces. Renewed clan fighting and suffering of the innocent are very real possibilities as the American troops leave.
With US support, Boutros-Ghali will therefore insist on a Security Council resolution that, for the first time, instructs UN commanders not merely to keep the peace but to impose order as necessary. Such a mandate would give UNOSOM II the same UN Charter authority Operation Restore Hope had, allowing it to intervene preemptively whenever it appeared that violence or vandalism might occur.
Instead of watching passively or issuing hand-wringing reports while Somalia slides back into chaos, UN forces would be expected to confiscate weapons, patrol the countryside, and organize civilian police forces to keep order.
UNOSOM II could thus give Somalis the kind of political breathing space they will need as they sort out their differences and rebuild their country. If the experiment works, the same sort of beneficial but iron-fisted UN intervention could be the right antidote to chaotic conditions and human suffering in other faltering nation-states.