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NEWS ANALYSIS

Superpower Aura Pushes U.S. Into Leadership Role

Policy: Clinton underlines nation's responsibilities with twin military missions to Bosnia and Zaire.

November 16, 1996|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton's twin decisions this week to order U.S. troops into Central Africa and to stay for a year and a half more in Bosnia carry with them wisdom from lessons learned in the dangerous, confused post-Cold War world.

They also propel the United States farther down a path fraught with political risk.

Although made only after considerable hand-wringing and consultations with European allies, both decisions carried a sense of inevitability. At one level, they were merely reminders of the burden the United States now shoulders as the world's single superpower.

"The United States cannot and should not try to solve every problem in the world, but where our interests are clear and our values are at stake, where we can make a difference, we must act and we must lead," Clinton said in explaining the additional deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina. "American leadership places a special burden on the men and women of our armed forces and their families."

Those same words could just as easily describe the humanitarian mission to Zaire.

Indeed, one of the most important and difficult lessons digested by the Clinton administration in its first four years has been the indispensability of U.S. involvement in international crisis management and multinational military missions, whether they are primarily humanitarian, peacekeeping or peacemaking.

In the case of Bosnia, virtually every one of the 34 nations participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peace implementation force let it be known that if the United States decided against staying for a second year, they too would depart.

"American participation is absolutely crucial," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana summed up. "Without it, there could hardly be a follow-on force."

The reasons--a complex combination of the United States' superpower aura, military power, moral authority, geographical distance and, in most cases, lack of historical baggage--are now far better understood, at least by senior U.S. policymakers.

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Clinton's insistence on "robust" rules of engagement for the multinational mission to Central Africa reflects another lesson learned from the original U.N. force in Bosnia. That lightly armed contingent, which failed to bring stability to Bosnia, demonstrated that those caught up in nasty ethnic conflicts pay little attention to anything less persuasive than the barrel of a gun.

Three years ago in Bosnia, Canadian peacekeepers digging in around the airport in the capital, Sarajevo, seemed designed more to give Bosnian Serb snipers target practice than to ensure the flow of humanitarian supplies into the besieged city. This week, the Canadians took the lead in the relief mission to Central Africa under radically different circumstances.

Asked to define how Americans and others deploying to eastern Zaire will interpret "robust rules of engagement," a U.N. official explained that "they will shoot anyone who gets in their way."

The administration's dogged attempts to define the terms and the extent of the new U.S. commitments frustrated allies pressing for quick decisions. They reflect the lingering effect of the 18 American soldiers who died in a 1993 gun battle in Somalia after a U.N. humanitarian mission in that nation ballooned into a chaotic manhunt for a local warlord.

The loss of Americans in Somalia also underscores that such missions carry other risks, ones that could loom large in the months and years ahead for U.S. policymakers.

Among the most serious risks is potential loss of public support. In some countries, such as France, humanitarian or peacekeeping military missions carry a sense of national honor that makes them an easy sell. The deaths of French and British peacekeepers in Bosnia, for example, generated no groundswell of public outrage or calls to bring the troops home.

In this country, public backing for such actions is far more tenuous. Nearing the end of an extraordinary year in Bosnia, in which not a single American soldier was killed from hostile fire, Americans remain unsure of the mission's wisdom. What backing there is appears to be extremely weak.

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"It's tepid support," noted Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, a Washington-based polling organization. "People are still divided on it."

He noted that approval of U.S. involvement in Somalia fell by half to about 34% in the course of a year that saw the mission change and Americans die. If U.S. troops get caught up in fighting between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic factions in Central Africa or fighting erupts in the Balkans, public resistance against any future missions could increase.

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