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An Adventure With All the Earmarks of Doom : Somalia: Dispatching elite troops will lock in the mission's big-power profile, making a solution more elusive. Four ways to withdraw gracefully.

August 29, 1993|John M. Broder and Robin Wright | John M. Broder and Robin Wright cover national-security affairs for The Times.

WASHINGTON — As an elite contingent of 400 Army Ranger commandos deploys throughout Mogadishu, the Clinton Administration urgently needs to revamp its mission in Somalia.

The dispatch of special forces marks a drastic and dangerous shift from the modest humanitarian objectives of Operation Restore Hope, a change with implications extending far beyond the East African nation. Far from the original goals of feeding the starving and keeping a tenuous peace, the United States--under transparent cover of the United Nations--now appears committed to crafting solutions by force of arms in an environment that will not bend easily to foreign will.

The problem is not limited to potential failure in Somalia. For an Administration groping over how to deal with the untidy remnants of a collapsed world order, the sequel to Operation Restore Hope could convert what was to have been a model of post-Cold War international intervention into a singular foreign-policy disaster. It could even end up serving as a deterrent to U.S., U.N. or other Western involvement in future humanitarian crises.

In the waning days of his Administration, President George Bush concluded that the heart-wrenching starvation of millions in Somalia offered an opportunity to display the positive uses of military power in the new world. The mission even appealed to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, as an eminently "doable" exercise of U.S. might in support of human need.

Both were right. But the operation began to sour in early June just days after the United States handed over command to the United Nations. The turning point was the June 5 massacre of 23 Pakistani peacekeepers, which the United Nations blamed on gunmen loyal to Somali war lord Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid. After that, Aidid went underground and the chase was on.

From then on and despite whatever good works were going on in the background, the Somali operation took on a military primacy that now centers largely on the search for Aidid--a mission ominously echoing the U.S. military manhunt for Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega in 1989.

With no public discussion and little congressional debate, Clinton has committed additional force in an open-ended foreign adventure that brings to mind the flaws behind the U.S. missions in Vietnam and Beirut. While the ends are worthy--pacification and a restoration of civil society--the means are inappropriate.

Aidid is not the basic nor the only problem. Nor are more guns the solution.

Before Somalia becomes another sinkhole, the U.S.-led mission must get back on track.

Four steps offer an alternative approach that builds a foundation for long-term solutions--and the prospect of both peace in Somalia and a pullout of foreign forces in the foreseeable future.

First, give priority to political rather than military issues by taking advantage of what has been achieved so far.

Somalia is in the midst of its first harvest in years. Business life has returned to the capital and some larger cities. Tens of thousands of people have returned to their homes. Even primitive education facilities are functioning.

The U.N. mission should build on these successes rather than on the risky and dubious effort to capture Aidid. He and the other warlords should be marginalized, not mythologized.

Both American and U.N. envoys have long recognized that international intervention would not end until some structure was in place to ensure Somalis could fend for themselves. The key to a solution in Somalia lies in building that structure through alternative leadership.

The main focus should be on the tribal elders who have long disdained the petty warlords--or leaders of rival subclans and clans who collectively make up the single Somali tribe. Unlike the warlords, whose power is comparatively recent, the stature of the elders dates back centuries.

Their role has traditionally been that of mediator of conflicts and disputes. In the current political vacuum, they provide a logical and legitimate alternative. And with the United Nations behind them, they also represent a viable alternative.

Other layers of leadership can be crafted from a host of other sectors--merchants, intellectuals, women, teachers, even former police--who have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to begin weaving a new civil society from the bottom up.

In individual groups and together, these recognized and law-abiding elements should be pulled together in a political dialogue that excludes Aidid and the other militia leaders. Chasing Aidid through the streets of south Mogadishu only adds to his power and allure--and delays and diverts attention from an eventual political settlement.

Second, efforts should be made to establish the rudiments of a judicial system rather than to enshrine or be party to the armed anarchy that now prevails. And the example should be set with an even-handed approach to the incident that triggered the trouble.

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