MENTION Somalia to a Clinton administration official and they are likely to wince. The Somali intervention debacle, with a Congress outraged over US casualties all but forcing the White House to beat a hasty retreat from that battered African nation, remains one of the Clinton team's formative foreign policy lessons.
At the same time, many US officials continue to believe that multinational peacekeeping will be an increasingly valuable tool for the West in years to come. They see it as, potentially, a new mid-range security option falling between the extremes of multilateral invasion and helpless inaction.
Thus the administration's new peacekeeping directive is an attempt to mollify quagmire-shy US lawmakers while still making UN blue-helmet operations more effective around the world. It's a far cry from the international standing army Clinton endorsed during his campaign - but neither is it isolationism.
``It's a step into reality,'' says Barry Blechman, chairman of the Henry Stimson Center, which recently produced a study on peacekeeping and the US national interest.
It is also an attempt to put some form in a foreign policy often criticized as shapeless. It lists a number of hard and fast criteria for judging whether the United States will support a particular peacekeeping operation. Among them are whether the mission would further US interests; whether it has clear objectives; and whether money and troops are actually available.
Further criteria are to be employed for determining if the US itself will send troops. These include whether US participation is essential to success; the prospect of congressional and public support; and whether a realistic end point for the operation can be established.
Analysts note that the utility of such lists depends entirely on the rigor with which those in power might apply them. Clinton officials insist that discipline is in fact a major goal of the policy, whose full details are hidden in a classified presidential directive.
Whether this is true or not may soon become apparent. ``There are going to be some tests pretty soon, such as Rwanda,'' notes a Senate aide who works on the peacekeeping issue.
The UN is considering sending at least 5,500 peacekeepers into Rwanda to try and protect refugees and ensure aid deliveries. Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania have offered troops; at this writing the UN Security Council had yet to give the plan its final blessing.
Even with a quick approval the UN troops would not arrive in Rwanda for at least a month. They would be authorized to shoot only in self-defense - not to stop the spasms of killing that have claimed hundreds of thousands of victims in recent weeks.
The check-off criteria could in fact limit the White House's flexibility in Rwanda and other cases, notes Indian Maj. Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye, who has led UN peacekeeping operations in the Congo, Yemen, and other trouble spots. It could provide endless grist for critics of particular peace missions.
Yet overall he judges the Clinton policy as a very positive step. ``It is the first time the US has clearly defined its policy for support of peacekeeping,'' he says.
Clinton's directive finesses the issue of command and control by emphasizing that any American service personnel involved in peacekeeping will remain under the command of US officers. But ``operational control'' of the troops might be handed over to the UN. The vision of US units under foreign commanders is a controversial one in Congress, but in essence the new Clinton policy simply states what already happens, says General Rikhye. ``The command issue has been totally lost in politicization,'' says the former UN military adviser.
The Clinton directive further urges changes in the UN's way of doing business, such as creation of a logistics planning unit to improve the quality of cost estimates. It calls for a reduction in the US contribution to the peacekeeping budget from 31.7 percent of total cost to 25 percent. Such moves are intended to help convince Congress to approve funds for payment of US peacekeeping dues now in arrears. This past-due amount will reach $1.1 billion if not paid until September.
While these management and budget changes are all well and good, they tend to present the problems of UN peacekeeping as purely administrative, analysts say.
In the end, all the check-off criteria and logistics committees and payment reforms bear little on the hard question of what US strategic interests are - and whether particular peacekeeping missions will really advance them.