Clinton cuts short California trip to deal with Somalia crisis


WASHINGTON -- It was the kind of presidential trip that had White House aides rubbing their hands with glee: President Clinton in electoral-rich California, doing what he does best, fielding questions for ordinary folks about domestic issues, such as trade, health care and jobs.

But as presidents invariably find out, world events have a way of rudely interrupting them.

Mr. Clinton was elected last year to solve economic and social problems here at home. That's where his heart is, too. And yet, for three days, right up until he cut short his visit and rushed home for an emergency meeting on Somalia, Mr. Clinton was badgered everywhere he went by ominous foreign policy events:

Russian tanks machine-gunning the parliament building in Moscow. China detonating a nuclear weapon in a secret, underground test.

But it was the Somalia crisis that awaited him back in Washington. A Somalian warlord's ambush had killed 12 American soldiers and seriously wounded 50 more. Another seven soldiers had been captured or were missing.

Americans were confronted with graphic images of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and a bruised captured U.S. soldier being interrogated by Somalis.

In Somalia, some United Nations officials were calling the Americans prisoners of war.

In Washington, Pentagon officials rejected that term, preferring the oddly bureaucratic "detainees."

But to most Americans, the face of captured Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant that stared out at them from their morning newspapers, conjured up another, more frightful word: Hostages.

Top White House officials quickly disputed comparisons between the deteriorating situation in Somalia and Jimmy Carter's hostage crisis.

But for every thing there is a season, they acknowledged grimly, and suddenly, for Mr. Clinton, it was not the season to be gabbing with ordinary folks, microphone in hand, about health care and the rest of his domestic legislation. It was the season to be commander-in-chief.

"This is the hand we've been dealt," said one top White House official. "Nobody around here is saying things, like, 'Oh no, there goes health care.' Being commander-in-chief goes with the job. And when you have Americans dead or injured, it becomes as important as the domestic agenda."

So far, Mr. Clinton has successfully walked a tightrope backing President Boris N. Yeltsin in Russia -- the two men spoke again yesterday -- though that relationship hasn't required military decisions.

By contrast, after repeatedly drawing lines in the sand in Bosnia, the Clinton administration has backed away from his commitment to stop the bloodshed in that country, prompting several resignations from career Foreign Service officers and making the president appear indecisive.

In his initial statements on Somalia, the president threw down the gauntlet again, this time saying that if the American soldiers held captive by Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid were mistreated, the United States, not the United Nations, "would view this matter very gravely -- and will take appropriate action."

He may have to demonstrate a willingness to back up those words with action.

Another immediate problem for the president is formulating a rationale for continued U.S. military presence in Somalia that will satisfy the American public.

In the last two days, the White House "talking point" on this question was enunciated again and again by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, by Pentagon spokeswoman Kathleen deLaski, by White House communications director Mark Gearan -- even by Mr. Clinton himself.

It goes like this: Before the United States went to Somalia, 350,000 Somalis had died of starvation. Our presence there has created enough stability so that food is being distributed.

But if we left Somalia, the same forces battling us will again cause a descent into chaos.

To underscore this point, Ms. deLaski twice drew attention to demonstrations in Mogadishu of about 15,000 Somalis not allied with General Aidid who are grateful for the U.N. presence.

But the specter of people who have been saved from starvation turning on the United States, killing Americans and dancing over their corpses has prompted a gut-level reaction among many Americans -- and members of Congress -- that the United States should simply get out of Somalia and leave that brutal land to whatever fate awaits it.

"The Shakespearean play 'King Lear' is an enduring story of ingratitude -- the ingratitude of children toward their parents," said Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Louisiana Democrat. "King Lear knew nothing of ingratitude. He should have been watching television this weekend to see the ugly spectacle of American troops killed, their bodies being dragged through the streets of Somalia by children . . ."

Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, sought to dull that growing sentiment.

"U.S. forces went there trying to help Somali people, trying to end the starvation and trying to mobilize the country out of anarchy," she told reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Clinton flew back from California. "He believes most Somalis are jTC grateful."

Back at the White House, Mr. Gearan subtly reminded reporters that Mr. Clinton had inherited the situation in Somalia from his predecessor.

As the day wore on, however, it became clear that in Congress, among both Democrats and Republicans, Somalia is now seen as Mr. Clinton's mess -- and his problem to solve, even if he'd rather be talking about containing health care costs.

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