THE standoff in Mogadishu between warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and United Nations forces threatens the entire Somalia mission. The episode this week of US helicopter gunships killing some 54 Aideed supporters, and the related deaths of four Western journalists at the hands of Somalis, has caused squabbling among participating UN states. The Italians talk about canceling the operation. Anger among Somalis is growing.
It is time the United States and the UN face an issue that should have been faced last November when President Bush announced Operation Restore Hope: What kind of commitment will Somalia realistically be?
Feeding starving people is a noble and worthy goal. The Somalia operation was more than just a "feel good" ending to the Bush presidency, and as such it deserves international support.
But the terms under which Mr. Bush presented the Somali mission to the American people - as a quick "in and out" operation - were always suspect. It was not realistic to think the rampaging warlords and the anarchy in Somalia could simply be put on hold while the Marines invaded, and that when the US troops left, Mogadishu would somehow be transformed. Warnings to this effect were lost in the rush of news photos of aid being delivered to emaciated people.
The White House knew the operation would at first be easy. Long-term issues were put on hold. They no longer can be. Clarity about the strategic aims in Somalia is needed. There must be a mandate for the kind of force, if any, that can be used in Somalia - and to what ends. It is this lack of clarity that angers the Italians and causes UN contingents to ignore orders from UN generals.
It may be that force should be used to deal with Aideed. But it should not be done by shooting from the hip. Lacking a deeper strategy, to simply spray suspected hideouts with machine-gun fire angers locals and puts at risk foreigners trying to help. Without a real plan for Somalia, UN action appears arbitrary rather than lawful. Will it be enough, as some US officials say, to rid the country of Aideed? Or will other warlords present similar problems?
The UN Somalia mission has done much good. The feeding centers need continued support. Somalia is a large country, and what happens in Mogadishu cannot be said to dictate the opinions and feelings of all Somalis. But if this mission is to be saved, the US must take more responsibility for what could never be so simple.