WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher admitted yesterday that the administration "right up to and including the president" had failed to assess the dangers posed by its drive to capture Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid.
The acknowledgment came as the Clinton administration remained on the defensive, trying to explain its policy toward Somalia as congressional and public sentiment turns against a continued U.S. presence in the African nation.
Mr. Christopher, in a television interview, said the United States went along with a shift in the United Nations' mission in Somalia in June "perhaps without a full understanding of the consequences of that."
"I think we're all responsible for that, right up to and including the president," he said. "We're part of this government. We take responsibility for that."
The shift occurred when the U.N. Security Council decided that those responsible for the June ambush-killing of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers should be apprehended and tried. The U.N. resolution did not specifically mention General Aidid, but he and his top aides became its target.
The United States, which had previously slashed its troop strength in Somalia, reversed course, Mr. Christopher said.
"When the attacks began on the United Nations forces, we built up the forces somewhat again to try to apprehend those who were involved. I think that was a sound and natural response. But, as I've said, I think it did get out of balance," he said.
The U.N. Security Council's goal of capturing and trying General Aidid led to an ill-fated raid by U.S. troops last Sunday in Mogadishu. At least 15 U.S. soldiers were killed and a helicopter pilot was captured.
President Clinton, resisting demands for an immediate pullout, decided afterward to dispatch 5,300 additional troops to Somalia and outlined a plan to withdraw by March 31.
Mr. Christopher said, however, that the president would not pull U.S. troops out if Somalis were holding American prisoners. "I think the American people will understand that exception," he said.
The secretary also said the United States "is no longer signed on to" the goal of nation-building in Somalia, the term applied to establishing institutions and a stable government.
But he and other officials continued to leave considerable ambiguity in U.S. policy.
U.S. envoy Robert B. Oakley arrived in Mogadishu yesterday to take the lead in diplomatic efforts to achieve a political solution. Administration officials said they hope Somalia's neighboring states can help mediate a political settlement with Somalia's warlords, presumably including General Aidid.
But both Mr. Christopher and Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the $25,000 U.N. bounty for General Aidid's capture still stands, despite General Aidid's call Saturday for a cease-fire in Mogadishu.
Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was asked to explain the apparent conflict on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "It's very important to keep pressure on those that are disrupting the humanitarian process," Ms. Albright said, referring General Aidid.
But Ms. Albright then said, "It's important to depersonalize this," suggesting that General Aidid's capture should not be a U.S. priority.
"I'm more confused than I was before we listened to the ambassador," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on the same show. "But the fact is, this is a policy that is in incredible disarray."
Mr. McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee, wants all U.S. troops from Somalia withdrawn as quickly as possible. "I frankly do not understand how you can, on the one hand, tell this warlord that you want to negotiate with him and at the same time keep a price on his head," he said.
Other lawmakers agreed. "The first thing you ought to do is lift the ransom," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said on "Meet the Press" on NBC.
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, said on the same program: "We have gotten ourselves in a situation of trying to capture an individual in the middle of an urban area that he controls. It's like going after Br'er Rabbit in the brier patch."
U.S. officials did not rule out entirely negotiating directly with the warlord, saying that if Mr. Oakley felt that would be useful, he could seek approval from Washington.
"If he thought that would be useful, he would report back in and request that," a senior administration official, speaking anonymously, said yesterday.
Officials also said that, while Mr. Oakley is not empowered at this point to arrange a prisoner swap with the Aidid clan, his current efforts may lead to that.
On "This week with David Brinkley" retired Adm. Jonathan Howe, the U.N. envoy in Somalia, said U.N. forces had often had General Aidid in their sights but did not shoot.
"Yes, we've had many opportunities to eliminate him. That's not our job. We're trying to arrest him or bring him one way or the other into a legal process," he said.
The opposition to Somalia also has widened congressional skepticism over other peacekeeping operations. New objections arose yesterday to the dispatch of U.S. troops to Haiti and possible future deployment in Bosnia if the warring parties there agree on a peace plan.
Mr. Nunn and others raised objections to the dispatch of about 600 U.S. troops for training a civil reconstruction work in Haiti as part of an accord leading to the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Those troops are scheduled to arrive in Haiti today.
"I would like to have the Congress informed before the deployments are made," Mr. Nunn said.
Mr. Dole said: "I wouldn't be sending anybody to Haiti, for example, and I wouldn't be sending anybody to Bosnia, any American troops. My view is that this probably precludes any U.S. participation in Bosnia, unless the president makes a case that I haven't heard yet."
He said Congress would keep a much closer watch on U.N. activities. "We sort of slept through this last event, and I think you're going to find us very alert from now on," he said.