ESTABLISHING a deadline for the withdrawal of United States forces from Somalia is not only a matter of facing political realities at home. It sends an important message to the Somali people - especially to the Somalis who pledged themselves to implement the United Nations-sponsored agreements on reconciliation, reconstruction, and disarmament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last January and March. They have been put on notice that the US, at considerable human and material cost, has created a unique opportunity for Somalia to save itself from further anarchy and destruction. This opportunity must be seized now.
Responsibility must be put back where it belongs: on the people of Somalia, and especially on the 15 factions and others who lay claim to leadership roles in the future. The dispatch of Special Envoy Robert Oakley to the region has already produced preliminary results. Parallel cease-fires by the UN forces and Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed's militia are in effect in Mogadishu, and the American and Nigerian prisoners have been released. Dialogue with General Aideed's Habr Gedr subclan has been resumed. Jimmy Carter and others have proposed that an African commission look into who was responsible for the June 5 killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers, in effect a face-saving way to deal with the UN's call for Aideed's arrest. President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea may be able to use their good offices to bring about the re-convening of the Addis Ababa conference.
This is the moment for the Somali faction leaders as well as women's groups, religious leaders, and clan elders who attended the earlier conferences to come forward and reclaim their country from the aftermath of the 1991-92 civil war and the impasse in reconstruction arising from the UN-Aideed confrontation in south Mogadishu.
Broad agreement already exists among the Somali factions on the principles essential for reconciliation: government institutions should be established first at local and regional levels; a transitional national council should organize national elections by March 1995; and heavy weapons should be in place in cantonments while the militia of the factions are demobilized. The role of the UN in coming months is to assist in transforming these undertakings into reality.
The events of the past four months in south Mogadishu have brought to the fore once again long-standing questions about the US role in UN peace-enforcement operations. The Clinton administration and Congress have rejected the concept of US forces serving under non-US command in actual or potential combat situations. This inevitably will raise questions about the readiness of Europeans and others to participate in multilateral peace-enforcement operations.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that UNITAF, the US-led coalition of 20 countries commanded by Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, worked effectively. The US alone had the logistical capability to deploy 28,000 men and women to Somalia on short notice. The participation of others depended on US leadership. A million lives have been saved.
In sum, despite the tensions and difficulties of the past four months, the US political and military role in Somalia has been essential for any prospect of a better future for Somalia.
As unresolved conflicts continue in the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Somalia, as well as elsewhere in the world, the US and the UN will have to re-examine the premises of international peacekeeping and find a new, more flexible, and better-managed approach. Asking one country to take the lead, as we have done in Somalia, may be one answer. Turning to NATO or a strengthened OAU may be another.
Ultimately, the US is the key. To maintain a leadership role without becoming the policeman of the world will require the administration to define with considerable specificity US interests and goals in humanitarian interventions.
Last December, America's innate moral and humane convictions took it to a distant shore to save lives. Today, shocked by US casualties, the American people understandably ask if the right thing was done.
The answer is still yes. The situation outside south Mogadishu is already greatly improved. US ground forces will remain for another five months to keep the port, the airport, and main supply routes open. An agreed disarmament plan awaits UN implementation. Now it's time for the Somalis, working together with the UN, to take responsibility for their lives. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.