America's 'Peacekeeping' Role Up for Congressional Debate

Basic principles must include retaining operational control

CONGRESS appears to be gearing up for a major debate about the role of the United States armed forces in peacekeeping operations around the world. The prospect of Americans bailing United Nations forces out of the Bosnian quagmire adds urgency to Congress's desire to deliberate.

The debate itself should be about principles, and the goal should be nothing less than bipartisan, executive-legislative consensus.

A debate focused on principles can produce clarity. Congress needs to stay out of the operational weeds and focus on producing guidelines that make sense to the informed electorate. The following thoughts are offered with that objective in mind.

1. Our military's principal mission must remain one of closing with and destroying enemy forces. The combat readiness of our armed forces takes automatic precedence over secondary missions. Whether or not our current force structure is sized or equipped appropriately to face post-cold-war challenges is not relevant in this debate. Our active and reserve forces must be ready to go to war.

2. American forces will remain under the operational control of US commanders. Xenophobic as this may sound, it is something Americans insist upon irrespective of whether we employ conscripts or volunteers. No multinational operation would justify a violation of this.

3. American forces will participate sparingly in ''other than combat'' operations. Our principal military role in the new world order is to keep our powder dry and readiness high in case combat becomes necessary. Those who suggest that what's needed is a special corps of volunteer, peacekeeping Hessians within the all-volunteer force miss the point. The strength of a well-armed, well-trained American assaulting an objective becomes a pitiful weakness when he is given a blue helmet and asked to referee between people bent on homicide. Even in pure peacekeeping operations, where the parties have stopped shooting and agreed to cooperate fully with the neutral force, it makes little sense to have the world's finest soldiers performing routine observation duties. An exception might be an American presence on the Golan Heights, if Israel and Syria want it and if such a presence can seal a peace treaty. As a general rule, our contribution can be limited to logistical and intelligence support.

4. No UN peacekeeping operation should go forward without the explicit permission and guidance of the US. The UN Chapter puts the UN Security Council in charge of ''Pacific Settlement of Disputes'' (Chapter VI) and ''Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression'' (Chapter VII). The US, not the secretary-general who, according to the UN Charter, is ''the chief administrative officer of the Organization,'' should be the de facto leader of the Security Council. Firm leadership is required to ensure that the UN remains (in accordance with this charter) a membership organization without a life of its own.

5. Forces (regardless of nationality) deployed for peacekeeping will be appropriately structured and guided. Peacekeeping, strictly speaking, means the parties have agreed to a cease-fire (perhaps an armistice) and have invited a neutral party to help ensure compliance. The observation force should be lightly armed, capable only of self-defense, and strictly neutral. In an act of breathtaking negligence, such a force was inserted into the maelstrom of Bosnia. Similarly, US forces configured for a standard peacekeeping mission were sent to Beirut in 1982, with disastrous results. Between standard peacekeeping operations (Cyprus) and UN-sanctioned multilateral wars (Korea, Kuwait), there is a very dangerous middle ground (Bosnia, southern Lebanon) that should be avoided.

These principles do not speak explicitly to the question of ''American interests,'' a perennial topic among those who seek to establish parameters for US participation in multilateral, other-than-combat operations. Although American interests are embodied in each principle, a disembodied notion of national interests may not be useful.

Assuming a situation in which key principles are observed, why should the US fail to act selflessly if lives can be saved? There is nothing inherently wrong with intervening in places such as Somalia and Rwanda provided we pay attention to principles. Inattention in Washington caused the disaster in Somalia.

The middle ground between war and peacekeeping received short shrift in principle No. 5. What should be done about imploded, failed states, particularly when armed elements run amok, killing citizens?

As heartless as it sounds, the correct answer may sometimes be ''nothing.'' In some cases the US might wish to facilitate intervention by those regional actors most affected by the disaster.

From the point of view of any intervening force, actual combat operations must be assumed. Should the Security Council ever again contemplate a Bosnia-type operation, it should choose sides and fight to win. Inserting a peacekeeping force into an active combat zone is an ineffective political gesture and a negligent, wasteful use of the force.

Congressional debate should aim for a common-sense, nonideological consensus. No one has a monopoly on guiding principles. Yet it is on the basis of principles that this debate can most usefully proceed.

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