We've lost our way in the Somalian desert. After journeyingthousands of miles to rescue an entire nation from starvation, we've lost sight of our goal and have begun quarreling among ourselves over how and why we got into such a thankless predicament in a land we hardly know.
To compound our confusion, the very people whose lives we saved now seem to be turning on us, ambushing our troops, taking hostages, celebrating our losses. Where 10 months ago our arrival brought joy and hope, our actions now seem to inspire brutal hatred among people we only sought to help.
Although our leaders assure us that the present misery is the doing of only one evil warlord and his lieutenants, the whole Somalian desert now seems filled with dangerous creatures that follow his orders -- hyenas, vultures and rattlesnakes poised to take advantage of our soldiers' missteps.
7' How can a humanitarian rescue opera tion that seemed so successful only six months ago have turned ugly? How do we get out of these Somalian quicksands before we sink even deeper?
When you've lost your way in the desert, it's easy to panic and miss clues that will get you back on the track and headed in the right direction. The sickening events of the past week, dramatized and replayed in their crudest form by the media, were certain to deepen our confusion and heighten our anger. Little wonder President Clinton is under such pressure now to take extreme measures: either blast the vultures and hy enas into oblivion or cut and run for home as quickly as possible.
Neither course is politically or morally acceptable to an administration that hopes to set a new pattern for shared leadership in the post-Cold War world.
* Punishing Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid has already proved to be frustrating, if not altogether impossible, even for our highly trained Rangers and their high-tech equipment.
Mogadishu is a medieval maze, and General Aidid could successfully hide there forever among his Habr Gedir clansmen. The only punitive strategy with any chance of success would require major military assault against the entire Habr Gedir community -- including women, children and old people. "Collective punishment" is a strategy the Somalis understand well enough; it's the one former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre used repeatedly to decimate his opponents. But it's one that flatly contradicts our own Western values, and Americans would recoil instantly from the scenes of carnage on satellite TV.
* Bugging out before the job is "done" is almost as un-American as collective punishment.
Americans led the multinational force into Somalia last December, and American officers play the leading role among contingents from 28 nations that compose the present U.N. force. It's Americans who have called most loudly for a more muscular and multilateral approach to peacekeeping, not only in Somalia but in Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. And it's America that will have to play sheriff alone in future Somalia-like conflicts if the multilateral effort collapses in failure this time. Pulling out prematurely would guarantee that failure, and the damage to our leadership pretensions would be enormous.
To his credit, the president has so far managed to avoid both these extremes. And at least briefly, in a press conference in New York, he was able to point out the landmark we needed to get us back on track and out of the desert.
Although the president's remarks became lost in the media tumult of the past few days, they clearly foreshadowed the middle-course approach he is now proposing: In order to get U.S. troops out with honor, he said, priority has to be shifted back to finding a "political alternative" to military force, one that would speedily transfer responsibility to the Somalian people themselves.
The president added that he still believed we'd been right to lead a humanitarian rescue effort when the country's political structure had disintegrated. But the United States and the United Nations had become "perhaps too preoccupied" with imposing order and not concerned enough with finding political alternatives.
The president's remarks were cautious, and he emphasized that the United States had no intention of pulling out on terms that would only allow Somalia to collapse into chaos as before. But they were a clear signal he thought too much time and effort has been spent chasing an errant warlord and too little on rebuilding the country's vital political machinery. It's a view that others in the U.N. coalition, notably Italy and France, have been voicing for many weeks now.
Of course, that was before General Aidid's followers downed our helicopters and brutalized their American crewmen. Now Mr. Clinton's bigger problem is how to contend with the outrage in Congress and disgust on the part of the American public, and still redirect our focus to the worthy humanitarian goals that led us to Somalia in the first place.
This past week, after intensive reviews in the White House and with Congress, the president offered a refinement of his middle-course approach. His plan would send 2,000 more troops and additional heavy armor to Mogadishu -- not, it appears, for purposes of punishing General Aidid but for protecting our own and other U.N. forces from further useless casualties.
It would also fix a time limit of about six months for completing the job in Somalia and withdrawing our military forces. In this way, the president obviously hopes to disarm both extremes in the debate, those who favor using greater military force and those who would pack up and leave.
But the more important elements in his plan will be those that aim at shifting the focus away from military measures and back to the basic political tasks at hand, away from "peace enforcement" and back to old-fashioned peacemaking.
Correctly, Mr. Clinton perceives these political tasks on two levels. First is the elemental one of getting Somalis to agree among themselves on new political machinery for the country. The trickier one is getting our own hostage (or hostages) home safely and the U.N. coalition back into an effective dialogue with General Aidid's Habr Gedir and other Somalian clans. Success on each level depends upon making effective use of skilled civilian negotiators and intermediaries -- people such as former President Jimmy Carter and Ambassador Robert Oakley -- instead of battlefield commanders and Cobra gunships.
It will be no easy matter to accomplish these political tasks while sending contradictory signals of a six-month time limit and a renewed build-up of military forces. But the Somalis are by no means amateur politicians, and for all his bluster, General Aidid has already signaled a willingness to suspend the fighting while we discuss his grievances with the help of a neutral mediator. He and other Somalian leaders are bound to recognize the balancing act President Clinton has had to perform in order to lead us out of the present disarray and set us on an honorable pathway out of the desert.
Frank Crigler, a retired foreign service officer who was U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 1987 to 1990, is professor of international relations at Simmons College in Boston.