THE horror of American bodies being dragged through the streets of Somalia and the shock of Army Rangers being ambushed have left Americans furious and numb.
The disaster has brought an understandable instant response Get our troops out now. However, as President Clinton said yesterday, before a hurried pullout, we must think hard about the meaning of what we're doing in Somalia.
Nobody argues we should stay in Somalia any longer than minimally necessary. But the way we leave is crucial. We will not leave Mogadishu until we get our hostages back and every American serviceman is accounted for. Beyond that, the Somalis don't have anything we want.
Apart from the humanitarian problem that brought us there, Somalia isn't a security concern. But it does matter that the world learn how to act when countries or regions fall apart.
Countries participating in U.N. operations must persevere in them. America's example has the most to do with whether such operations succeed.
We want the operation in Haiti to succeed because failure could send us another flood of impoverished immigrants. I call that defense of the United States.
We want the operation in Bosnia to succeed because we don't want the European countries and Russia and Turkey coming to blows. I call that defense of the United States.
For the United Nations to succeed in these operations, other countries need confidence, training and leadership. That's where we come in. If the United Nations can learn from our military how to do things right, we won't have to go to every fire.
But we are still providing leadership by example so that others will commit themselves and U.N. peacekeeping and peacemaking will succeed.
If we left Somalia prematurely, that example, which our military has burnished for months by its conduct under pressure, would be tarnished -- and with it the idea of a collective response to regional problems. A retreat by any name is still a retreat. But we need to lay down some guidelines for U.S. participation in all U.N. operations.
First, the U.S. should be called upon for its unique strengths -- intelligence collection, logistics, medical support, communications -- but not for infantry units, which many countries have available.
Our superpower status and the reputation of our combat units give thugs like Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid a target to use to
Second, we should ensure that U.S. forces are always under U.S. command and have sufficient U.S. backup for protection. The need to call on foreign armored units to help rescue our Rangers was shameful.
Third, our participation should be proportional. I object to sending thousands of U.S. combat troops to Bosnia when wealthy, well-armed European countries can do more in a cause whose failure will have more immediate consequences for them than us.
Fourth, every decision to participate in a U.N. peacekeeping operation should be subject to congressional approval. Because our departure from Somalia will affect future U.N. operations, we should leave with dignity and only when properly relieved.
As Nebraska's senior senator, J. James Exon, a Democrat, said in the Senate Wednesday, America might well regret a precipitous decision taken at this time of stress.
In the meantime, we should have no illusions that we, or anyone, will ever create a democratic government there.
The military in Somalia should lower its profile. The diplomats should get the Somali factions together, declare a Somali government and pronounce the U.N. operation over. And soon.
Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.