Clinton Absorbs Some Hard-Learned Lessons in Somalia

GOOD for President Clinton and his decision to send Amb. Robert Oakley, a seasoned Somalia expert, back to Mogadishu and restored to him the decisionmaking power that Adm. Jonathan Howe has exercised so disastrously there this year.

This marks an important shift away from the bully-boy emphasis on prevailing militarily in that tortured nation to a more nuanced, appropriate, and achievable goal of winning politically in Somalia. But the president could still bungle things badly if the lack of oversight in the making and implementing of our Somalia policy this year continues.

Decisions and actions that Mr. Clinton takes on Somalia will have broad effects throughout East Africa on the future of United Nations peacekeeping and on the coherence of the international system. One good aspect of Clinton's new Somalia policy is its emphasis on regional, East African approaches.

I have long thought that nations can best assure their own stability by building strong, multilayered networks of common interest with others in their regions. With the collapse of the cold war this is particularly true. Weak nations can no longer hope to find security under the wings of distant superpower patrons.

Somalia needs good ties with its neighbors and has much to offer them. Equally important, policymakers in Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Kenya know much more about Somali politics than Westerners. Their energies need to be fully engaged in the stabilization effort.

At a broader level, Somalia is a test case for US-UN relations in the post-Desert Storm era. There are challenges. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali seems an ardent supporter of the punish-Aideed line; Washington is urging a less hawkish policy.

Nearly all the other countries contributing troops agree with the new American line. So Mr. Boutros-Ghali should not be a problem. There will be a much bigger problem for the whole concept of UN peacekeeping if the withdrawal from Mogadishu is vindictive and clumsy.

Some questions about Clinton's leadership skills are crucial: such as his accountability for recent events. On Sept. 28, the president announced that while he had not given up what he termed ``the enforcement strategy'' in Somalia, the emphasis would now be put on providing a political solution that would marginalize ``rebel'' clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed.

Five days later, the United States command in Mogadishu launched the disastrous helicopter raid that resulted in the deaths of 12 GIs and an unknown number of Somalis. What went wrong?

The president of a powerful nation such as ours cannot speak lightly on affairs overseas. So if Clinton spoke seriously on Sept. 28, where was the implementation of his policy? Five days was more than enough to redefine the GIs' posture and activities in Mogadishu in line with the president's new definition of the mission.

Where was Secretary of Defense Les Aspin? Where was new Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili? Why did they not follow through? Did the president understand the implications of his words enough to require that they do so?

This month 15 American servicepeople have been killed in Somalia. Unless there is clarity, trust, and accountability within our chain of command, the coming months could see many more. Note, too, that the withdrawal that the president has now promised is not a maneuver that the US military knows much about doing with good grace. Its instinct is to cover a withdrawal - from Vietnam, from Lebanon - with an escalation of strikes from air and sea that is not, to put it mildly, designed to build long-term appreciation for the American role.

This time, the military will need to be under the firm control of a president who now understands that the primary goals in Somalia are political, not military. This may be a stern test of the commander in chief's abilities. But Clinton's leadership skills are not all that is at stake. So, too, will be the credibility of UN peacekeeping.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.