WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, attempting to rally a reluctant nation, announced yesterday that he is doubling the U.S. military presence in Somalia, but pledged to bring all the combat troops home within six months.
"We started this mission for the right reasons," Mr. Clinton said in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office. "We're going to finish in the right way."
The president said the U.S. presence has spared a million lives in that East African country and argued that leaving might undo it all and severely damage U.S. credibility around the world. Mr. Clinton likened the Somalis to a family in a burning house that the United States had set out to save.
"We've nearly put the fire out, but some smoldering embers remain," he said. "If we leave them now, those embers will reignite into flames and people will die again. If we stay a short while longer and do the right things, we've got a reasonable chance of cooling off the embers and getting other firefighters to take our place."
Cooling things off means beefing up forces immediately in the wake of Sunday's attack on U.S. Rangers by Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, which killed 13, wounded 77 and left at least seven others missing or captured. Another attack Wednesday night killed another U.S. soldier and wounded 12 others.
In addition to the 650 troops sent Monday, Mr. Clinton said he was dispatching some 1,700 ground troops and 104 military vehicles -- backed by some 3,600 U.S. Marines off-shore. That brings the total number of U.S. troops to 10,000. The president also -- for the first time -- clearly enumerated their mission:
* First, to protect U.S. troops and our bases. "We did not go to Somalia with a military purpose," Mr. Clinton said. "We never wanted to kill anyone. But those who attack our soldiers must know they will pay a very heavy price."
* Second, to keep open and secure the roads, the port and the lines of communications needed by relief workers to prevent starvation.
* Third, to keep the pressure on those who cut off relief supplies and attack U.N. troops. "Not to personalize the conflict," Mr. Clinton said in a reference to General Aidid, "but to prevent a return to anarchy."
* Fourth, to create an environment in which the Somalian people, working with their African neighbors, can rebuild their country's political structure.
Ultimately, the president emphasized, the solutions to Somalia's deep problems cannot be solved by military force. And to help give some muscle to negotiations, he said, special envoy Robert B. Oakley was being dispatched to Africa.
Although Mr. Clinton did not mention General Aidid by name, his speech contained a tacit admission that the forces in Somalia had allowed their pursuit of him to cloud the original mission in Somalia. The United Nations forces in Somalia -- which took over command of the operation from the United States in May -- shifted their focus to arresting General Aidid after his forces ambushed and killed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in June.
In a meeting with congressional leaders earlier in the day, however, Mr. Clinton left no doubt that he agreed with congressional critics on this point.
"The president indicated that one important mistake that was made was this extraordinary U.N. preoccupation with seeking out Aidid," said Rep. Ronald Dellums, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Clinton was careful not to criticize the U.N. effort in his speech. Nonetheless, he stressed that the combat troops he was sending to Somalia would be under U.S., not U.N., command.
One consistent congressional critic of U.S. involvement in Somalia, Sen. Robert Byrd, said he remain unconvinced that more troops are needed and expressed a desire for a speedier withdrawal.
The West Virginia Democrat is expected to introduce an amendment next week to reduce the number of troops and move up the withdrawal date.
Mr. Clinton's speech capped an intense five-day period at the White House in which the president's attention was yanked from the passage of health care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement to two foreign policy crises thousands of miles away.
The first was an attempt by opponents of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to launch a revolt in the streets of Moscow. The second came when a U.S. raid to flush out General Aidid and his supporters Sunday ended in disaster.
Although White House officials believed that the crisis in Moscow constituted a far greater threat to America's long-term security, it was the events in Somalia, fueled by graphic photographs of captured pilot Michael Durant and the body of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets, that fired ,, the public's indignation and ignited a furor in Congress.
Trying to head off congressional momentum to just abandon Somalia, Mr. Clinton conducted an extraordinary, sometimes contentious two-hour meeting at the White House yesterday morning with congressional leaders from both parties.
Afterward House Speaker Thomas Foley said, "We just finished what I believe is the longest continuous consultation on a foreign policy and security policy issue that I've experienced in Congress in 29 years."
But if the president got high marks for seeking the counsel of Congress, few members sounded satisfied with the explanation provided at the meeting by Adm. David E. Jeremiah, acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on why the Army Rangers were trapped for hours in Mogadishu.
"Admiral Jeremiah addressed that question -- I'm not certain to the satisfaction of everybody there," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, who said he stressed to Mr. Clinton the importance of making sure that whatever he does from here on in militarily in Somalia "is an American plan . . . controlled by Americans."
Several others at the meeting found the president's March 31 deadline too far in the future, while at least one Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said it was unwise for the president to publicly give a timetable because it might encourage General Aidid to hang in there for six more months.
Even after hearing the president's pitch, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., remained skeptical that the United States has legitimate interests in Somalia.
"Our job is not to reform the government over there," he said. "Our job is not to tell the people over there how to run their own government. We can't be the policemen for the world."
Public opinion turned
Aware that public opinion has turned against the mission to Somalia -- 52 percent in a Gallup poll say it was a mistake to get involved there -- Mr. Clinton opened his address by saying:
"A year ago we all watched with horror as Somali children and their families lay dying by the tens of thousands, dying the slow, agonizing death of starvation, a starvation brought on not only by drought, but also by the anarchy that then prevailed in that country," he said.
"This past weekend we all reacted with anger and horror as an armed Somali gang desecrated the bodies of our American soldiers and displayed a captured American pilot, all of them soldiers who were taking part in an international effort to end the starvation of the Somali people themselves."
Those events, the president conceded, raised "hard questions" about the United States' continued presence in Somalia: "Why are we still there? What are we trying to accomplish? How did a humanitarian mission turn violent? And when will our people come home?"
Mr. Clinton said these questions deserved straight replies -- and he proceeded to lay out what he says are the answers.
"We went because only the United States could help stop one of the great human tragedies of this time. A third of a million people had died of starvation and disease. Twice that many more were at risk of dying. Meanwhile, tons of relief supplies piled up in the capital of Mogadishu because a small number of Somalis stopped food from reaching their own countrymen. Our consciences said 'Enough.' "
WHO'S GOING TO SOMALIA
U.S. forces being sent to Somalia.
* About 1,000 armored and support troops from Fort Stewart, Ga., along with 18 M-1 tanks and 44 armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
* About 700 light infantry troops from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
* About 1,870 Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and 1,800 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will stand by on amphibious assault ships offshore for emergencies. They will have 29 amphibious assault vehicles and 13 light armored vehicles.
* Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln with a crew of 6,100 and more than 60 jets. The carrier will be accompanied by an undetermined number of escort warships.
* Two additional AC-130 aircraft gunships from Hurlburt Field, Fla., to join two other AC-130s already in the region.
* Troops: The fresh troops ordered to Somalia will double the U.S. military presence to about 10,000 soldiers.
* Hardware: 104 armored vehicles will be sent. An aircraft carrier and two amphibious groups will be stationed offshore.
* U.N. Forces: There are already 34,000 troops from 24 countries in Somalia. The president wants other countries to send more.
* Casualties: 29 Americans have been killed since the U.S. involvement began in December; 59 soldiers from other nations have died.
* Getting out:The president hopes to have all but a few hundred American troops out of Somalia by March 31.