WASHINGTON -- As grumbling increases on Capitol Hill about "another Vietnam" in Somalia, the large single-day casualties to American troops there have raised the heat on President Clinton to demonstrate that he has the capability to deal with a crisis in the foreign-policy field in which he has virtually no experience.
Doubts in this regard were only intensified by the dispatch of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to brief more than 200 members of Congress about administration policy in Somalia. Legislators of both parties came out of the closed meeting shaking their heads about the inability of the two men to provide a definitive statement of what Clinton intended to do next, and in what time frame.
While some important legislators, including Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are pressing for early withdrawal and considering congressional action to force it, others agree with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole that "if we had a vote today we'd be out today, [but] we can't get out with hostages there."
Clinton's already shaky relationship with the military, growing out of his lack of military service himself during the Vietnam War and the hornet's nest he stirred with his plan to lift the ban on homosexuals in uniform, now faces a more direct acid test.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a decorated Vietnam prisoner of war, says that while the president's draft record has not been notably raised in criticisms of his handling of the Somalia crisis, "he doesn't have the credibility others have, and it has begun to be the belief of some members of Congress that his administration is very naive."
Clinton, McCain says, "doesn't have the reserve of credibility that President Reagan built up and that President Bush had automatically." Both Reagan and Bush served in World War II and Bush was a Navy pilot shot down in combat.
So while Clinton is undoubtedly sincere when he expresses deep regret at the loss of American lives in Somalia, there will be some voters, within the military especially, who will question whether his own experience equips him to appreciate the personal impact of the military decisions he will be called on to make.
George Bush reflected that attitude during the 1992 presidential campaign in a speech to a National Guard convention in Salt Lake City. Bush said he wasn't going to hammer at Clinton's lack of military service, but then raised it anyway through the back door.
Such issues as "using influence to avoid the military matter," Bush said, "because despite all our troubles at home we can never forget that we ask our presidents to lead the military, to bear the awful authority of deciding to send your sons and daughters in harm's way. . . . Does that mean that if you've never seen the awful horror of battle, that you can never be commander in chief? Of course not, not at all. But it does mean that we must hold our presidents to the highest standard, because they might have to decide if our sons and daughters should knock early on death's door."
The voters, focused intensely as they were on the nation's domestic economic woes, didn't seem moved by this admonition on Election Day. But now that the threat to American lives has for the moment pushed Clinton's domestic agenda to a back burner, his lack of experience in military crisis management, and in shaping a comprehensible long-range policy for U.S. involvement in Somalia, is bound to stir congressional doubts about Clinton's role as commander in chief.
At the same time, to be sure, the situation offers the new president an opportunity to demonstrate that he can be effective on the foreign-policy front. But McCain notes that none of the four criteria Clinton laid out for a U.S. peacekeeping role in his recent speech to the United Nations is being met in Somalia. Clinton asked then: "Is there a real threat to international peace? Does the proposed mission have clear objectives? Can an end point be identified for those who will be asked to participate? tTC How much will the mission cost?"
But those points were enumerated before American hostages were taken in Somalia. Now it's a new, more complicated ballgame.