Difficult Deployments

The "outside" world may already be taking charge of President Clinton's second term. In two crucial instances, the reelected US leader is having to make the most difficult decision a commander in chief faces: deploying American soldiers in potentially dangerous places.

The first of these deployments, to Central Africa, where the Hutu-Tutsi conflict has spilled over into giant, highly volatile Zaire, is rife with uncertainties. The second, extending US participation in the international force keeping peace in Bosnia, involves ground that is now more familiar but still mined with question marks.

Under a preliminary agreement, the United States will contribute some 4,000 troops to the United Nations' Central African operation, which will be led by Canada. Most of the US contingent will support airlifts and other means of getting supplies to the hundreds of thousands of refugees now cut off from food and clean water. A thousand Americans will be deployed with the forces going directly into the Zairean border town of Goma, the epicenter of the crisis. There, Hutu and Tutsi rebels and militiamen have squared off, shelling each other and wreaking havoc on helpless refugees.

Aiding the refugees is the immediate goal of the operation, but this humanitarian mission - like others of recent memory - is complicated by the presence of active belligerents who have their own ideas of where aid should go, and by political instability on all sides. Still, in this situation, unlike Somalia, there are at least governments to work with and to apply pressure to, as needed.

The mission, which Mr. Clinton has approved only with such built-in conditions as a four-month duration, could have a lasting benefit if, as planned, it helps large numbers of Hutu refugees return to their homes in Rwanda. Also, if the intervention quells open warfare between militant factions for even a few months it could allow heightened activity on other fronts. Community rebuilding is crucial, so that returning refugees can more easily resume normal lives. And the administration of justice in Rwanda, including the work of the international war crimes tribunal, must be strengthened.

The extended deployment in Bosnia, which now looks probable, is a practical necessity. Recent flare-ups of violence when Muslims attempted to reclaim homes in Serb-held territory hint at how quickly war could resume. Yet some progress has been made in constructing new political institutions, and next year's municipal elections could provide more - but only if the hotheads are kept at bay by international peacekeepers.

In both Bosnia and Central Africa, America's commitment to world leadership is being tested. No family would choose to have its sons or daughters deployed in either place. But to stand back and let the seeds of war and tragedy germinate could mean a more costly deployment later.

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