WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration, haunted by its nightmarish experience in Somalia, is trying to avoid the same political mistakes as it prepares for a massive military relief effort in Rwanda.
U.S. officials said the lessons learned from the American mission in Somalia--which turned from an initial success into a textbook case of how not to run such an operation--account for much of the Administration's caution in sending troops into Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Added to that are the daunting logistic problems the United States is likely to face.
"Obviously, we're using a more cautionary approach" than the one used in Somalia, one senior official said Thursday. "We want to make sure everything proceeds on track."
Perhaps the overriding principle that the Administration is intent on following in Rwanda is this: The U.S. role should be strictly limited to humanitarian relief operations--not broadened to include peacekeeping duties, as happened in Somalia.
The Administration is also determined not to have U.S. forces perceived as taking one side or another. The U.S. successes in Somalia deteriorated rapidly after the Pentagon announced that it was determined to capture clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid.
As a result, U.S. officials are carefully laying the groundwork with the new rebel government of Rwanda to make sure that neither of the warring Tutsi and Hutu factions is likely to oppose the presence of U.S. troops in the country.
In fact, Washington is hoping for what amounts to a request by Rwanda's new leaders for U.S. participation. "The intent is that we'd be invited by the government of Rwanda," said Marine Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Finally, the Administration is looking carefully at how U.S. forces would fit into the multinational operation. Although Washington wants a U.N. label on the Rwanda venture, it does not want Americans under foreign command.
Some officials had blamed the fact that U.S. forces in Somalia were operating under the United Nations for a debacle that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. Rangers. But that was only a technicality. Actually, U.S. commanders were calling the shots.
In the end, 42 Americans died in Somalia.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry has gone to considerable lengths to spell out the limits of U.S. participation in the Rwanda operation: Washington will provide the logistics and equipment and let the United Nations turn elsewhere for the troops needed to ensure peace.
"The operations we are committed to conduct and are executing right now are humanitarian operations--relief operations," Perry said. "We have not provided and are not providing troops to that operation, to the peacekeeping operation."
There are some stark similarities between the situations in Somalia and Rwanda. Both involve human tragedies that were brought about mainly as a result of civil war. And both are in countries with little real infrastructure, meaning that logistics problems are immense.
But there also are some important differences: The war in Rwanda has been between two ethnic groups, not a dozen. The situation involves hundreds of thousands of refugees, who have been stricken with cholera. And Rwanda is landlocked--and more difficult to reach.
Perhaps even more pressing, the situation in Rwanda comes with a deadline. If the refugees are not persuaded to return within two or three weeks, they will miss the chance to harvest this year's crop.
Robert B. Oakley, who served as envoy to Somalia, said Thursday that while the Administration "needs to be very, very aware of the potential dangers, that should not deter us" from going to Rwanda. But, he added, "Frankly, I would be inclined to go slow."