WASHINGTON -- The crisis in Somalia casts a broad shadow over President Clinton's freedom to use American force in other parts of the world.
The more blood that is spilled and the angrier Americans get, the less assertive the United States will become in trying to right wrongs elsewhere, and the harder Mr. Clinton will find it to fulfill U.S. commitments.
The president was blunt yesterday in spelling out the consequences for U.S. power and influence if the United States beats an abrupt retreat from Somalia.
"Our own credibility with friends and allies would be severely damaged," he warned. "Our leadership in world affairs would be undermined at the very time when people are looking to America to help promote peace and freedom in the post-Cold War world. And all around the world, aggressors, thugs and terrorists will conclude that the best way to get us to change our policies is to kill our people. It would be open season on Americans."
But some of those consequences already may be inescapable as the United States tries to extricate itself from the East African nation.
Even before the latest capture and deaths of U.S. servicemen, high-ranking administration officials worried about a desire among Americans to pull back from the world and avoid getting embroiled in its messy problems.
In a recent speech, Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, said the United States confronted the "fundamental foreign policy challenge" of "whether we will be significantly engaged abroad at all."
Immediately at risk is congressional approval to dispatch 25,000 U.S. ground troops to help enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia, an environment far more complicated and perilous for Americans than Mogadishu.
A peace agreement in Bosnia is still some distance off, but the advance of winter there in three weeks' time makes it increasingly likely.
If so, President Clinton may have to eat his commitment, with untold consequences for U.S. credibility.
"Any decision to proceed with a major U.S. commitment to Bosnia is affected by the experience of Somalia," a senior U.S. official said yesterday. While he did not rule out such a commitment, he said:
"Before it takes place there will be a much more thorough appreciation of the terms for going in and the dates for getting out. The leash . . . now will be tighter."
More broadly, Somalia has left a bad taste in Americans' mouths for the kind of multilateral action envisioned as the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the post-Cold War world.
"We're in a new world. We are all struggling to figure out how to do these things with other nations, and it's an important precedent for the future," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt told reporters yesterday morning after President Clinton's contentious meeting with congressional leaders.
The Somalia mission seemed to offer a test case for a new kind of U.S. intervention: the use of the U.S. military's superb logistical and technological capabilities for a purely humanitarian cause.
If successful, the mission could have been a glittering precedent for selected U.S. missions elsewhere.
To be successful, however, the mission had to avoid getting sucked into the quagmire of Somalia's civil war. That's why the United States resisted the job of disarming Somali warlords. And that's why, as originally conceived, the larger mission of "nation-building" would be turned over to the United Nations and U.S. troops would not be involved in a combat role.
Something happened in March, however, when it came time for the Security Council to draft a resolution setting up a new U.N. force in Somalia.
It stressed the "crucial importance" of disarmament. And the United States, while reducing its overall force level in Somalia, became less determined to stay out of combat and more supportive of the larger U.N. goals.
The persuasive powers of Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali should not be underestimated, nor the Clinton administration's hopeful belief in the value of what it called "assertive multilateralism."
A key corner was turned in mid-June, when forces loyal to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid ambushed and killed some two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, put the United States firmly behind disarming the warlords and helping to rebuild Somali society, pledging "very strong United States support."
Now, senior U.S. officials are singing a much different tune.
Mr. Clinton said yesterday, "It is not our job to rebuild Somalia's society or even to create a political process that can allow Somalia's clans to live and work in peace. The Somalis must do that for themselves. The United Nations and many African states are more than willing to help. But we in the United States must decide whether we will give them enough time to have a reasonable chance to succeed."
U.S. officials also have adopted a vastly different way of dealing with the secretary general. At a lengthy and "difficult" meeting with Mr. Boutros-Ghali Wednesday night, Ms. Albright gave him "a reality check," a U.S. official said. "She had to be pretty tough with him."
Within the administration there is hope that they have rescued the Somalia mission from disaster in time to preserve U.S. credibility and flexibility to project force abroad when needed. "Future operations will be affected by the Somali experience for better or worse," a senior U.S. official said.
"But it is better to learn earlier rather than later. We're learning very difficult lessons, but it will strengthen peacekeeping in the long term."