WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, resisting mounting pressure from Congress to bail out of Somalia, is poised to order 2,000 or more troops into Somalia -- and keep them there into next year to protect U.S. forces, administration officials confirmed late yesterday.
Sources in the congressional leadership said last night that they had received assurances that the additional troops do not necessarily mean a new military offensive. In fact, the United States will step up its efforts at negotiation and construct a timetable for an orderly withdrawal.
According to the Associated Press, the Washington Post reported in today's editions that senior administration officials said Mr. Clinton will pledge to end the operation by next April.
Despite widespread public doubts about the United States' mission in Somalia, the president predicted yesterday that the American people would be satisfied that he is pursuing the right course.
He argued that chaos and starvation would quickly return to Somalia if the United States departs in haste.
"It is essential that we conclude our mission in Somalia," the president said from the East Room of the White House, "but that we do it with firmness and steadiness of purpose."
The president said that he will consult with congressional leaders today. After that meeting, presumably this afternoon or this evening, the president plans to announce his plans to the nation.
"He's made the decision to stand and fight," said one high-ranking Pentagon official.
Senior administration officials said that although the president was prepared to resist calls from Congress to pull U.S. forces out immediately, he agrees with those who insist on the need for setting a firm timetable for withdrawal.
Officials said that the United States needs to draw the troops down gradually in order to give the United Nations time to bring in more troops from other countries to replace Americans and to advance the political process in Somalia. They also said that Mr. Clinton doesn't want to give Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid and his clan the impression that the United States is "retreating."
"If you beat a retreat, you undercut [U.S.] policies in other areas" of the world, a senior official said.
At the United Nations, Kofi Annan of Ghana, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, echoed Mr. Clinton's points, saying that a U.S. pullout could prompt other countries to withdraw too and bring back "chaos and confusion."
He said that he understood the reasons behind the calls for withdrawal but said it could cause the whole force to "unravel altogether."
The extra U.S. forces are intended to provide protection as the United States tries to gain the release of soldiers detained by General Aidid's clan, respond to any provocations and arrange an orderly withdrawal.
Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander of the U.S. forces in the region, went yesterday with United Nations Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright to brief Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the president's impending decision.
President Clinton also summoned Robert B. Oakley, a career diplomat who had been President George Bush's special envoy to Somalia, to resume that role in an effort to rebuild the political structure. Mr. Oakley met yesterday with the president of Eritrea and was to travel to Addis Adaba last night to ask Ethiopia's president to reconvene a conference of Somalian political leaders.
General Aidid's clan could be included in the process, officials said.
At the same time, officials said, there will be "continued pressure on Aidid from our military forces."
"Our men and women in Somalia, including any held captive, deserve our full support," the president said yesterday.
"They went there to do something almost unique in human history. We are anxious to conclude our role there honorably, but we do not want to see a reversion to the absolute chaos and the terrible misery which existed before. I think the American people and, I hope, the Congress will be satisfied that we have assessed our position accurately and that we have a good policy pursue."
Passions on Capitol Hill, however, seemed even higher than the day before with members of Congress split into two camps -- those who want to "cut and run -- or blow those people up," said Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, chairman of the House Armed Services committee.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois and 64 of his fellow House Republicans sent Mr. Clinton a letter yesterday declaring his Somalia policy "a failure" and calling on him to tell Congress of his plan for securing the release of any captive U.S. soldiers and of his intention to "expeditiously withdraw our forces in a safe and orderly manner."
Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, adopted a restrained view, calling for "an immediate change in tactics," a narrowing of the military action to complete PTC the original humanitarian mission while defending U.S. forces, and "ignoring Aidid." He added: "I do not support escalation."
Others, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that they believe that the president ought to beef up U.S. forces in Somalia enough to punish General Aidid for his militia's attacks on U.S. troops -- and then withdraw.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine was able to postpone an immediate vote on whether to cut off funds for the U.S. military effort in Somalia, thus sparing Mr. Clinton the potential embarrassment of seeing his leadership undercut.
No matter what side they were on, members of Congress conceded that they were responding to visceral reactions by constituents, who were appalled and angered by the images broadcast from Somalia this week of a wounded U.S. helicopter pilot being interrogated and the body of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
"Every time that film is shown, the phone lines light up again," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam War prisoner of war. "That may not be a great way to make foreign policy, but it is a political reality."
A CNN-Gallup poll of 500 people Tuesday found that 66 percent of those who responded thought the U.S. operation in Somalia was unsuccessful. Only 25 percent called it a success, and the rest had no opinion.
But one complicating factor even for those Americans -- and members of Congress -- who would like to see an immediate end to U.S. involvement in Somalia is the fact that General Aidid is holding at least one U.S. soldier, and possibly more, prisoner.
Apparently seeking to blunt American rage at the pictures of captured Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, two of General Aidid's representatives in Washington took pains to insist yesterday that he was not being harmed.
"He's safe, well fed, healthy and not being used as a human shield," one of the representatives, Ali Gulaid, told reporters at American University.
Pentagon officials have confirmed that 12 Americans were killed in a firefight Sunday between U.S. Army Rangers and General Aidid's men and have said that six others are missing.
Mr. Gulaid and another Aidid associate, Ahmed M. Darman, former Somalian ambassador to the United States, said they did not know if any of those other six were alive.