Lessons From Somalia

THE United Nations' exit from Somalia closes a sad chapter in the early history of the post-cold-war world.

When the operation began in 1992, the United States and other participants had a certain flush of confidence. The ''new world order'' was being built.

Somalia turned out, instead, to be a place where many hopes for the prompt realization of such an ''order'' would topple.

Not that the UN's mission did no good: Thousands of Somalis were saved from starvation, and that was the original goal. But that goal broadened into the restoration of civil society -- a task the peacekeepers were ill-equipped to carry out.

Efforts to knit the society back together focused on the warring clans in the capital, Mogadishu. Some longtime observers of the country feel that was a mistake, giving the clan leaders -- ''warlords,'' as they became universally known -- a credibility they didn't deserve. The seeds of civic order may have lain far from the capital, among people in provincial towns who wanted to rebuild a working society and agricultural economy. Many more Somalis should have been brought into the reconciliation process.

Through the efforts of the UN and nongovernmental aid organizations, some rebuilding has been accomplished. Crops are being harvested, and institutions, such as schools, are functioning again. But the outlook, with fighting increasing both around Mogadishu and in the nominally independent north, is dim.

Despite the failure to leave Somalia in peace, the world community still has a responsibility there. The country should not be erased from the world's ''screens'' as the cameras move elsewhere. Rebuilding should continue, and international aid remains crucial.

Somalia should not become an argument for shying away from relief efforts in the face of social and military unrest. The greatest human need is usually accompanied by such conditions. And it shouldn't become an argument for spurning international peacekeeping generally.

The loss of life among UN peacekeepers -- including 18 American soldiers -- was tragic. In hindsight, aspects of their mission, such as the attempted capture of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, appear misconceived, and issues of command and coordination among the international forces at times became muddled.

The lessons of Somalia -- in planning, in defining a mission, in understanding the complexities of a society -- are many. They shouldn't be missed.

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