Recent events in Somalia and Haiti suggest the unhappy conclusion that U.S. troops are becoming unsuitable for further high-profile United Nations peacekeeping operations.
It is not because they are incompetent, ill-equipped, untrained or psychologically unfit for this kind of work.
Rather, it is because they are becoming the targets of those who desire to frustrate U.N. initiatives.
That was never more evident than last Monday in Port-au-Prince when those trying to prevent the United Nations from restoring Haiti's elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide urged the Haitian military to fight the Americans in the peacekeeping force preparing to land from the ship Harlan County anchored offshore.
There were no reports of these Haitian "patriots" calling for the blood of the Canadian troops aboard the ship.
By their very nature, peacekeeping missions are dangerous. Uniformed peacekeepers put themselves between opposing armed groups. What protects them, to some degree, is their cloak of neutrality, the acceptance of it by both sides.
If it is lost or squandered, and the peacekeepers are drawn into the conflict, their effectiveness is obviously lost.
In Somalia, it has been suggested that U.S. commanders have virtually thrown away their neutrality by vigorously pursuing Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, one of a number of clan and militia leaders. This accusation may have some validity, even though General Aidid is in need of pursuing. He is suspected of having organized an ambush in June that left 24 U.N. Pakistani peacekeepers dead; he has repeatedly sent his guerrilla fighters against U.S. troops, with some success.
But the all-out pursuit of General Aidid is fairly recent. When Operation Restore Hope was first launched last December, the U.S. troops put ashore at Mogadishu seemed to have a clear idea what their mission was. Officers and enlisted men interviewed on the beach spoke of it as a rescue mission. They came to protect food deliveries, not to deploy against or attempt to disarm the militias. Restraint was evident in their manner.
By contrast, the French Foreign Legionnaires on the mission were a trigger-happy lot, blasting several Somalis almost immediately after arriving.
Somewhere along the way two things happened. The United States grew overtly aggressive, and General Aidid learned that fighting the Americans had a payoff for him, especially when clashes produced a lot of Somali casualties, as they nearly always did. It also helped him when they yielded a lot of U.S. casualties, as the one on Oct. 3 did -- 18 Americans dead, scores wounded, a helicopter pilot captured (he was released Thursday).
Such outcomes galvanized Somalis in a way nothing had before. As the U.S. commanders tried to demonize the fugitive clan leader, he, through his considerable radio and print propaganda apparatus, painted them as invaders of Somalia. The evident glee on the faces of Somalis in Mogadishu holding shards of wreckage from downed U.S. helicopters proved the effectiveness of his campaign.
That he was succeeding was at least evident by the rapidity with which the Clinton administration, facing a suddenly rising clamor at home for withdrawal from Somalia, softened its tones toward the Somali warlord. One day he was a hunted fugitive, the next Washington was talking about his participating in a political solution in Somalia, possibly heading the next government, if one is ever formed.
There seems to be little doubt that the lesson learned by General Aidid was quickly picked up by the hard-liners in Haiti. They threatened to turn their own country into "another Somalia" if necessary to keep the Americans from helping fulfill the U.N.-brokered settlement of restoring Father Aristide.
And there is no telling where or when it will happen next.
There are a great number of U.S. peacekeepers around the world. They take part in U.N. and non-U.N. missions.
In all, there are slightly more than 60,000 troops deployed around the world under the U.N. flag. The largest U.S. deployment is the 660 troops in former Yugoslavia. Almost half of them are in Macedonia, the others in Croatia and Bosnia.
There are also small groups of U.S. troops standing between Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights, and groups in Lebanon, Kuwait, the Western Sahara and Cyprus, about 120 in all.
Other U.S. peacekeepers, deployed under non-U.N. auspices, serve in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein's forces. There are 521 in the Sinai supporting the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
But most of these locations are not currently inflamed. It is in places like Somalia, Haiti and Lebanon as it was a decade ago, where U.S. troops, for all their undoubted prowess, logistical and tactical capabilities, may be too vulnerable to serve as peacekeepers.
Why is this so?
One reason might be that in the United States, public opinion is a larger factor in the formation of foreign policy than it is in any country in the world. And it is manipulable. Ho Chi Minh realized that a long time ago, and he sought to influence it in his favor.
General Aidid understands it today, as do those opposed to Father Aristide's return.
In Europe, governments enjoy a wider freedom of action to pursue policies unpopular with the public and to pursue them for a longer time. Perhaps this is because they descended through history from more authoritarian regimes than they are today, and their publics retain a residual respect for foreign offices' near sovereign right to conduct war and peace.
In non-democracies, the public is hardly a factor.
In the United States, for a variety of reasons, the public feels it should have a say in everything the government does. Even foreign policies must have a constituency, and presidents are always careful to cultivate these and try to keep them intact, especially when the policy is dangerous, or not well-understood.
Constituencies for Somalia-like ventures are perhaps more volatile today than ever before. Media coverage, the rapid circulation of distressing images of foreign people rallying against U.S. troops, shots of wounded or dead Americans, all these are taken as evidence of policy failure. They trigger acrobatic justifications and explanations by presidents and other leaders.
Actually, it's not television that does it. It is the instantaneous nature of communications, television being only one expression of it, that speeds up the action/reaction syndrome that has always been there.
Thus, it is more difficult today than ever before for a U.S. president to stay the course in a difficult situation than for the leader of any other country in the world. To foreigners, it gives our foreign policy a fitful, unstable appearance, to the despair of our friends, the joy of our enemies.
Also, the initiation of difficult policies, like the Somalia intervention, the gulf war and the like require immense public relations buildups; they must be framed in grandiose moralistic terms and ornamented with extravagant self-praise, eulogies to U.S. prowess and purpose in order to win public support. The consequences of all this swagger are often embarrassing.
After U.S. Marines were dispatched as peacekeepers to Beirut in 1983, President Ronald Reagan dwelt publicly on the devastating firepower of the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he had ordered to take up position off the coast of Lebanon "to assure the safety" of the Marines.
It didn't. It couldn't. More than 200 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber on Oct. 23, and it was not long after that they were ignominiously withdrawn.
Just this August the Pentagon announced the dispatch of 400 Special Forces troops to Somalia. The message conveyed was that these elite forces would very quickly find and arrest the elusive General Aidid, who was fast becoming a kind of Somalian Pimpernel.
They didn't. Some of them were killed. And their failure was enlarged by the expectations generated. Consequently, the disillusionment back home was greater.
With the recent experiences in Somalia still very much alive in the public mind, involvement in the Bosnia imbroglio by the United States would seem doubtful at this point. At least it is difficult to imagine President Clinton sending large numbers of U.S. peacekeepers into that country in the absence of an absolute peace accord, one in which all the warring factions are signed on and whose forces are prepared to welcome the peacekeepers.
Even under the least threatening of circumstances, a clear justification for any such move from the president, an explanation of how it serves U.S. interests, will probably be demanded. Defining those interests for the public is always the most difficult task. Most presidents rarely even try.
Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.