RISING violence in Somalia is causing increasing unease in Washington, with many members of Congress questioning a United States intervention most hailed as a large-hearted humanitarian gesture when it was launched last year.
The Senate last week stepped back from claiming veto power over the continued US presence in the United Nations Somalia force. But lawmakers pledged continued active oversight of the operation after a summer of passively accepting administration actions.
On Capitol Hill, Somalia is now discussed with a frankness unusual for a situation in which US troops are daily facing danger. Since Vietnam, lawmakers have tended to downplay their concerns during such times for fear of undercutting US commanders.
But this time, ``Don't turn your backs as we spend $10 in military aid in Somalia for every $1 in humanitarian aid. Don't turn your back as we get involved in a civil war,'' Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said over the weekend.
Pitched battles in recent days have only fueled this concern. Yesterday, US attack helicopters raked with fire an area only a few hundred yards from UN headquarters, as UN troops exchanged shots with Somali gunmen.
The US presence in Somalia is far smaller today than it was when President Clinton took office, with only some 4,000 US personnel in the area, down from a high of more than 20,000. But crack US units such as Army Rangers have begun to trickle back into Somalia to support the hunt for fugitive warlord Mohamed Aided. This reverse trend is increasing worry in Washington.
Last Thursday, the Senate approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the president to seek explicit congressional authorization of the continued US presence in Somalia by Nov. 15.
``We went to Somalia to keep people from starving to death. Now we are killing women and children because they are combatants,'' Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said on the Senate floor last week.
In turn, administration officials are now mounting an active defense of their policy. They portray the continued US presence as a necessary symbol of US commitment.
To leave now, they say, would be to undo the good that has already been done. ``Before we can completely wash our hands of it, we have to try to restore some semblance of order so that [Somalis] have a chance to make it without mass starvation returning there,'' Vice President Al Gore Jr. said in a broadcast interview Sunday.
There is some thought in Washington that attacks on the Somalia policy constitute barely veiled criticism of the whole idea of US involvement in UN peacekeeping.
Such conflict-settling - dubbed ``assertive multilateralism'' by Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN - is part and parcel of the Clinton team's approach to the post-cold-war world.
Beyond Somalia, after all, is Bosnia, where any US peacekeeping personnel would face dangers and difficulties far beyond those that exist on the Horn of Africa.
``One of my concerns is that if things backfire in Somalia, the public will get a distaste for intervention in general. It could be fuel for neo-isolationism,'' says Alberto Coll, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College.
As principal deputy assistant Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, Dr. Coll helped plan the Somalia intervention. He says the Clinton approach to the same problem has been marked by ``mission creep.'' Rebuilding the Somali nation now appears to be the US goal, he says, replacing the original pure humanitarian motivation.
Coll claims that the Bush administration was well-aware of the dangers of getting more deeply involved in Somalia, and planned to get in and get out quickly, despite UN calls for continued help.
``Any administration has limited political capital for foreign intervention. You have to be careful how you spend it,'' he says.