President Clinton has moved to pick up the pieces of his shattered Somalia policy by rebuffing those who would cut and run no matter what the cost to America's credibility and world leadership. By beefing up U.S. forces rather than reducing them and by setting his sights on a phased withdrawal almost six months in the future, he may have set the stage for a fight with a panicky Congress. But better to let that battle run on Capitol Hill than through the gun sights of hostile guerrillas on the lookout for signs of American weakness.
More than one somber Oval Office speech will be required to restore confidence in his foreign policy. Laser-focused on domestic issues, the president and his top security advisers failed to reach a consensus on how best to protect U.S. forces in Mogadishu put at risk by a hydra-headed United Nations operation. Instead, lightly armed infantrymen were ordered into a risky search-and-seizure mission Sunday without adequate protective armor or proper liaison with other U.N. forces which took eight hours to provide relief.
The result: the death of a dozen American troops and the capture of several more. This deplorable outcome is the direct responsibility of the Clinton administration. But a chastened and angry president, facing his first overseas calamity, at least was right in not turning tail and risking the further indignity of seeing a magnificent humanitarian relief effort crumble back into starvation and chaos. It is in bad situations, even situations gone bad because of high-level blunders, where a nation's mettle is tested.
If the United States is to be spared further humiliation, the military emphasis in Mogadishu should be in protecting American forces, avoiding ill-considered attacks on rebellious warlords, maintaining an off-shore contingent for use in emergency and preparing the way for other nations to replace U.S. combat forces. Americans are, unfortunately, targets of choice among the terrorists of this world.
This seems to be the direction in which Mr. Clinton is moving. But until there is clear evidence of a common and coherent U.S.-U.N. policy that will bring the Somali operation to a satisfactory conclusion, Congress and the American people have every right to be vigilant -- even suspicious. If Somalia is a prototype of conflict in the post-Cold War world, it stands now as an example of how the loftiest aspirations can turn sour if this country, above all others, does not exercise good judgment. Such matters cannot be left to a U.N. secretariat whose ambitions outrun its capabilities.
President Clinton said last night that we must leave Somalia only when the job is done, on our own terms -- and "we must do it right." This is not enough. Henceforward, when this country intervenes militarily in far-flung places, "we must do it right" going in as well as coming out.