AS the post-cold-war world evolves, the United States faces pressures to use its enormous geopolitical clout in pursuit of humanitarian world peace and stability. Americans are frequently admonished that their country's ``sole superpower'' status generates international obligations that Washington cannot fail to meet. We are told that our power requires Americans to lead because if we do not, who will? Cumulatively these pressures have led to humanitarian peacekeeping or peacemaking exercises in Somalia and Haiti, with another mission looming in Bosnia. Americans are wise to have profound reservations about these enterprises.
Popular concern has focused on whether the US is being led astray by its commitments to the United Nations and regional multilateral security organizations. One important part of that concern focuses on the question of placing US forces under UN command. This irritates American sovereign sensibilities and provokes opposition. Similarly, the United States' core role as the only country capable of providing sustained forward-deployed logistics and reliable intelligence threatens to entangle American forces in support of an endless succession of UN missions.
There is ample reason to question why the possession of enormous international power should necessarily translate into a mandate to use that power toward ends not required by US national interests. Just because we can do something does not mean we must or should do it. When it comes to applying US military power in the post-cold-war era, US armed forces should be tasked only with the defense of the US and any vital interests it proclaims that are amenable to military resolution. Other uses of such power are extraneous.
In particular, US armed forces should have no role in humanitarian missions. Two buzzwords of recent US strategic adaptations to post-cold-war circumstances - ``peacekeeping force'' and ``humanitarian force'' - are perverse oxymorons. Not one of those missions is best accomplished with force.
Using US armed forces in these capacities dilutes and confuses their prime function - to deter and (if necessary) wage war against those who endanger the US. Having expensive military forces deliver aid or help to develop infrastructure in troubled lands is a terribly inefficient use of such national resources. Money spent on such matters through the Pentagon will rarely, if ever, be cost effective, given that institution's management track record.
If Americans are stricken by their collective conscience after watching foreign calamities on CNN, the most cost-effective and least geopolitically risky way to assuage their concern is to have Washington write a check on the Treasury to appropriate private relief agencies. These are excellent instances where checkbook diplomacy might work, would be cheaper, and would make Americans feel better. There are many ways the US can and should pursue humanitarian agendas when confronted by horrendous situations abroad that arouse American moral indignation - but those means are all civilian in nature.
Alternatively, the US could foot part of the bill for other countries' armed forces to staff global policing functions through the UN, NATO, or regional organizations such as the Organization of American States or Organization of African Unity. At all costs, Americans should avoid humanitarian or peace missions that entail the use of US armed forces. Abstention from such tasks is essential so that the US can avoid messy foreign entanglements and preclude any chance that our ``face'' or prestige will be at stake over a gratuitous issue.
Even the softest of US military options in humanitarian activities (i.e., providing logistics support for other countries) that superficially appear to be safe missions could draw the US into quagmires. We need to assure ourselves that we know how to get out before we go in.
The easiest way to avoid all those problems associated with the concept of an ``exit strategy'' is to avoid all ``entrance strategies.'' That is the clearest way to avoid the disastrous consequences of inadvertent military buildup or of becoming the focus of the frustrations felt by recipients of American assistance.
Americans must accept the fact that the US cannot, and should not try to, save other countries from their baser instincts. We need to deal with more pressing concerns at home. The last thing the US needs to do is to fritter away its energies by misguided efforts to dispatch American armed forces to an endless supply of troubled countries in a forlorn attempt to use quasi-colonial means to fulfill humanitarian goals.
THE Wilsonian activism of American foreign policy that is committed to an internationalist agenda - including offering humanitarian aid, being a self-appointed human rights arbiter, and acting as an advocate for the global ``enlargement'' of American-style politics and economics - has inevitable consequences. They make the US simultaneously a judge and enforcer as it intervenes in far-flung areas that have little or no bearing on vital national interests.
The US, acting as sole superpower trying to lead efforts to preserve peace and stability worldwide and fostering prosperity, is in danger of assembling a de facto humanitarian ``empire'' with far-flung quasi-colonial outposts. This will sap US strength as thoroughly as past misguided pretensions to global centrality.
Americans should take advantage of the opportunity provided by the current controversy generated by US policies toward Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, and toward the UN's evolving role in assuring global human rights, to rethink the basic tenets of post-cold-war US foreign policy and forge new priorities that are truly consistent with US national interests. 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.