The disastrous "search and seizure" operation in Somalia that led to the deaths of 12 American soldiers and the capture of several more cannot be justified on military or political grounds. It represents a failure of intelligence, in all definitions of that word. While President Clinton is right to send heavy armor to protect the 4,600 infantrymen still at risk in the Horn of Africa, his administration should be held accountable for a misconceived and and mismanaged policy.
First, two hard questions:
* Why was the latest attempt to hunt down warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid set in motion only days after high-ranking U.S. officials said the emphasis in Somalia would be shifted from military to political efforts at a solution?
* Why were lightly armed U.S. forces placed in such an exposed position just weeks after the American commander in the field, with the advantage of on-site observation, had requested and been denied the tanks and armored vehicles that are now, belatedly, being rushed to Somalia?
If the answer to the first question is a mixture of duplicity and confusion on the part of Washington officials, this is only further evidence of the administration's inability or unwillingness to explain what it is doing. If the answer to the second question, as we suspect, is fear of an adverse reaction in Congress to a deeper entanglement in Somalia, we find this stance unconscionable.
Decisions on when to commit U.S. forces to United Nations peacekeeping or peace-enforcement operations will be among the most important foreign policy issues facing this country in this decade. It was the subject of Mr. Clinton's speech to the General Assembly in New York last week in which he preached the wisdom of knowing when to say "no" to appeals for intervention. But with actions on the ground in Mogadishu contradicting such good sense, the administration winds up with its grounds for maneuver severely limited.
Congress had already demanded justification of the Somalia policy by Oct. 15. The mess in Somalia has also clouded administration prospects for congressional approval of U.S. involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina should the opposing Muslim, Croat and Serb forces there agree to ethnic partitioning under U.N. supervision. Thus, Mr. Clinton finds himself far more constricted by the War Powers Resolution than any of his predecessors, even though Congress remains institutionally incapable of decisions only a president can make.
Having successfully completed its humanitarian mission of saving tens of thousands of Somalis from starvation, the United States should leave to others the U.N.'s self-proclaimed task of establishing a secure environment for nation-building in a land whose indigenous political art form is clan warfare. Once again, as in Vietnam and Beirut, this country will be hard-pressed to find its way out of a foreign entanglement it cannot sustain with its honor intact.