SUPPORTING the United Nations as an important agent for keeping, even enforcing, peace is a key concept of President Clinton's foreign policy. Sometimes, however, that support is most effectively shown by pointing out where the UN's approach has misfired and by pursuing an alternative.
Which is what Mr. Clinton in effect has done - with a considerable push from US public opinion and influential members of Congress - by setting a March 31, 1994, deadline for withdrawing United States forces from Somalia and sending envoy Robert Oakley there to search for a political solution to the fighting in Mogadishu.
Much of that push stems from the casualties US forces and other peacekeepers have taken. But it also stems from the confusion surrounding US involvement and the conflicting voices within the administration over Somalia.
On the ground, US logistical troops are nominally under UN command, but the rapid-reaction forces on call to reinforce peacekeepers remain under US command. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's representative in Somalia is Jonathan Howe, a retired US Navy admiral.
Within the administration, UN Ambassador Madeline Albright and national security adviser Anthony Lake are said to be the strongest proponents of arresting Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Somali warlord most hold responsible for the deaths of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in a firefight last June. Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher are said to be frustrated by a lack of emphasis on finding a political solution to the situation. This approach showed some promise Oct. 12, as reports surfaced that leaders of General Aideed's clan were urging him to release a US helicopter pilot captured Oct. 3 and a Nigerian peacekeeper. Yet even as Mr. Oakley continues his talks with leaders of Aideed's clan, US reinforcements are steaming toward Mogadishu and the cease-fire Aideed declared Oct. 8 shows signs of unraveling.
It is time for the UN to depersonalize the crisis and focus on Somalia's political reconstruction. We hope that the secretary-general's call for a meeting next week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will provide a solid beginning to the process, which ultimately must include Aideed's clan if not Aideed himself. The UN should work harder to disarm all of the clans, not just Aideed's. It also must better explain its goals to Somalis, let alone the rest of the world. So far, Aideed has been able to paint the UN with a colonialist brush, with inadequate UN replies. And it must begin to focus on the kinds of projects - roads, schools, health-care facilities - that give tangible signs of concern for the country's long-term success.