WASHINGTON -- Facing three military situations -- in Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti -- the Clinton administration has produced three different peacekeeping responses, from limited involvement to possible bankrolling to the threat of invasion.
Advocates of the policy say it is appropriately diverse to meet different situations and reflects the varying degrees of U.S. interest at stake. Critics say it smacks of impromptu policy management.
When President Clinton escalated his policy on Haiti's military dictators last week, from economic pressure to threats of military force, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said a U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation would be "a big mistake," and added: "It may just be the policy of the day for this government."
But Loren B. Thompson, of Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program, said: "The U.S. approach to peacekeeping is not only laudable, but it makes a good deal of sense. It is well-tailored to the world in which we find ourselves."
That world is one where the focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted from containing Soviet Communist expansionism to confronting regional conflicts that threaten international stability.
As Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, said: "These are particularly hard to come to grips with . . . because basically their origins are in political turmoil within those nations, and that political turmoil may not be susceptible to the efforts of the international community. This is a new era. We are all learning."
If foreign policy-making is changing radically, so is peacekeeping.
"The traditional peacekeeping operations had involved interstate conflicts. Recently, we've become more and more involved in war situations, because it is war situations, whether in Africa or in ex-Yugoslavia, and to some extent in the former Soviet republics, which is confronting the world with major flash points."
His point was echoed by Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said of Bosnia: "You know, we can't even figure out if it's a civil war or a national war, because it's both. This is a hybrid, a new hybrid situation."
The United Nations is involved in 18 international operations, nine of them in Africa. With demand for and costs of peacekeeping forces rising, the Clinton administration last week issued stricter guidelines to limit U.S. participation and funding.
"The reality is that we cannot often solve other people's problems," Mr. Lake said.
The new U.S. stance on peacekeeping has been shaped by bitter experiences in Somalia and Haiti. The slaying of 18 U.S. troops in Somalia in October, their bodies shown on television being dragged through dusty streets by a jeering crowd, was the first such setback.
"The experience of Somalia has made everybody extremely leery of intervention," said Marina Ottoway, an African affairs expert at Georgetown University.
The second came in Haiti in October, when a force of U.S. military trainers decided not to land after a small group of demonstrators assembled on the dock in Port-au-Prince. The Clinton administration said it had ordered the ship's withdrawal because the island's military dictatorship refused to guarantee the troops' safety while they helped prepare the local militia's transition to democracy.
But the retreat was widely portrayed as a case of a superpower being humiliated by a bunch of thugs on the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
President Clinton pointedly kept open the possibility of military intervention in Haiti.
After those two setbacks, a Gallup Poll found that the approval rating for Mr. Clinton's foreign policy management went into free fall, dropping to 31 percent, from 55 percent two months earlier.
Asked whether the U.S. experience in Somalia made them more or less willing to favor the use of U.S. troops in humanitarian efforts abroad, 43 percent said less willing.
Out of those experiences come the administration's latest policy decisions.
* On Bosnia, the administration has committed U.S. air power through NATO to guarding six "safe zones" around major urban areas and protecting U.N. troops on the ground.
But there has been confusion between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations over who can order in the planes. Nations with troops on the ground have been more reluctant than the United States to bomb. The United Nations has not been as willing as NATO to answer Serbian defiance of ultimatums with attacks.
'It is wrong'
The administration has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to the former Yugoslavia until a peace accord takes hold, after which it is ready to commit up to 25,000 troops to a peacekeeping force.
* On Haiti, Mr. Clinton last week pointedly kept open the possibility of military action, saying: "Maybe we've let it run on a bit too long. . . . Innocent civilians are being killed and mutilated. It is wrong. We have got to do what we can to stop it."
* In Rwanda, the policy is one of helping others -- mainly African troops, if a force can be organized -- try to re-establish order from the bloody chaos.
Mr. Clinton is ready to help bankroll an expanded U.N.-backed peacekeeping operation in Rwanda, and is offering transport and supplies to create "safe zones" for refugees. But he is unwilling to commit U.S. troops, even if peace is made between the warring Tutsi and Hutu tribes.
While the United Nations and the United States favor relying on regional forces to supply peacekeepers for U.N. operations, local troops often lack the means or the will.
Responding to U.S. lead
The Organization of African Unity is at odds over providing troops for Rwanda. The Europeans failed to take the lead in Bosnia. And the Organization of American States is unlikely to be much help to the United States in any peacekeeping or peacemaking moves in Haiti.
This has left the United States in the lead in dealing with each crisis. As one U.N. official put it: "The Security Council, for several years now, has responded to the U.S. lead. If you want something decisive to happen, the U.S. has to pick up the flag and say, 'Here I am, and here is where I want to go.' "
Last week, by issuing stricter guidelines on peacekeeping, the Clinton administration published a policy road map, showing just how far it is prepared to go.