PRESIDENT Clinton's decision to escalate the conflict in Somalia rather than to withdraw American forces immediately will lead to disaster because his basic foreign-policy assumptions are flawed. More is at stake than Somalia: The Clinton administration is about to bungle one of the greatest opportunities in the last 200 years to bring peace and order to our world.
The president argued in a recent address to the nation that we must live ``up to the responsibility of American leadership in the world'' and prove ``we are committed to addressing the new problems of the new era.'' He subsequently made the same points in press briefings concerning both Somalia and Haiti. But one of the biggest problems of the new era is American leadership itself.
The world today is in a historically unprecedented position. One nation - the United States - enjoys military and diplomatic preeminence, while the center of global economic power remains unclear. By acknowledging the importance of finding an ``African solution'' in Somalia, Mr. Clinton indicates that he knows the US can't dominate the world despite the lack of a countervailing superpower.
What our president fails to understand is that this new reality requires that we adjust not only our policies, but also our most basic assumptions about what international relations is and how it is supposed to work. As in Vietnam, the problem in Somalia is not an ``open-ended commitment'' but rather our dominant role.
Clinton's ideas reflect the same consensus that has underlain American actions since the turn of the century: What's good for us is good for the world. But this kind of thinking by the US and other countries has led to enormous military and ideological conflicts. The idea that one country has a mission to lead the world helped start World War II and the cold war. The belief that a powerful nation has the right and the obligation to intervene in the affairs of weaker countries led to the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and countless other places since 1947. Haiti may be next on the list.
The collapse of our mission in Somalia is a prime example of the tragic consequences of US assumptions that we know best. American leadership, however reasonable it seems to us, is bound to create future conflict. A world power structure based on hierarchy is not only unfair, but it also invites challenge and attack. By maintaining a dominant role, we will revisit the terrible disasters that have made the modern era a nightmare of war. We create our own Aideeds.
If Clinton wants to establish a cooperative world order with substantially reduced conflict between nations, he must look first to American behavior. The US is a model for the world - but it is a model based on our actions, not our rhetoric. Clinton must renounce his claims to global military and political dominance and establish a system whereby such preeminence is no longer necessary for peace.
The president must move us in the direction of a world system in which aggressive challenges to other countries - invasions, interventions, subversions - are a thing of the past.
The first step is the most obvious: Leave Somalia now. It is not our fight, it is the United Nations'. This is not ``cutting and running.'' It is recognizing that the problems with the mission in Somalia lie in our conflict with Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed's forces, not with the intervention itself. Our fight with General Aideed has nothing to do with bringing food to the Somali people. It has to do, in Clinton's words, with maintaining American ``credibility'' and ``leadership.''
We must turn over responsibility for Somalia's welfare to the UN. It was a mistake for us to lead there in the first place; it would be a mistake for us to remain. Withdrawal now won't undercut American power; it will, however, demonstrate that Clinton realizes we have become part of the problem and that he is serious about building a world order that is sane and peaceful.
We cannot afford to return to a system based on mutually assured destruction and aggressive interventions. Yet the president and the foreign-policy establishment - Democratic and Republican alike - are attempting to preserve US preeminence at a time when world affairs make a cooperative approach possible and desirable. At best, our time as undisputed world leader will be brief. What Clinton does with these fleeting moments may make the difference between a world dominated by fear, hatred, war, and other human catastrophes, and a world filled with optimism, peace, and international cooperation. 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.