Generations of Western citizens were taught to fear the advance of Soviet troops into Europe, a threat that was potentially overwhelming and therefore easily understood. But the fact is that neither Somali nor Serb warlords aspire to world domination and, if Western governments want to stop wars in the Balkans or Africa, they must be prepared to explain to their people why such crises matter.
An explanation does exist, and not necessarily only on moral grounds. Although none of these local wars actually threatens Western security as such, their cumulative impact could dissolve the whole fabric of current security arrangements. The European Community and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe have been discredited in Yugoslavia; the UN has met a similar fate in Somalia. Restoring the credibility of these institutions is the least Washington could do. Instead, by choosing to blame everyone else for current failures, Mr Clinton is actually hastening their demise. Sloping shoulders are the last resort of the scoundrel.
After years of treating the UN as nothing but a body for irrelevant Third World states, President Clinton pledged to reform the organisation. America, his advisers promised, would be involved in 'aggressive multilateralism', by working with the UN in 'enlarging the boundaries of democracy'. But this was all irrelevant stuff, for, far from supporting the UN, Clinton's administration has sought to find the median line between commitment and isolationism, world leadership without its liabilities.
If the US wanted to place the UN at the heart of international security efforts, it first ought to pay its dues to the organisation (something Washington has still failed to do), and offer a blueprint for reforming its structures. It should also recognise that a new approach altogether might be needed. Peace-keeping operations are an invention of the Cold War, a period in which freezing, rather than solving a conflict was considered the only feasible option. In a period in which countries self-destruct, however, the distinction between keeping a peace and imposing one simply does not exist. As the Europeans have learnt in Yugoslavia, negotiating ceasefires with bands of marauders bereft of any central authority has been an exercise in futility.
To complicate matters, there is literally no such thing any more as purely humanitarian intervention. The tragedies that propel Western governments to react have deep political causes: feeding Bosnians so that they survive to be shot is no more satisfying than preventing mass starvation in Somalia only to fuel a wider civil war. And intervening only when harrowing television pictures dictate that something should be done remains the worst policy of all: it guarantees that governments enter the fray far too late, and that they withdraw far too early - the moment the first body bags start coming home.
In each conflict, therefore, a decision has to be taken early: either the local war is of no importance (and Western governments must be prepared to bear the full brunt of media attacks), or it carries grave security implications, in which case intervention must come as soon as possible. A commitment to intervene should be prolonged and unpredictable; sometimes the warring parties can be separated by mutual agreement, in other cases this separation may have to be imposed by force. Moderation, patience, good intelligence facilities and a sharp eye for detail are all vital. Most important, such operations demand the political guts to stay the course, even if the guts of one's soldiers are spilled in the process.
The Americans are singularly ill- equipped to handle such conflicts. Instead of proposing the use of moderate force, the Pentagon suggested the application of firepower without the slightest idea what this was meant to achieve. Its policy was to spray Mogadishu with bullets and zap Slobodan Milosevic with 'smart weapons' from the comfort of a Washington armchair.
Blaming the Europeans for the Yugoslav disaster, as President Clinton did at the weekend, may be correct, but it is hardly profound. For, just like the Europeans, Mr Clinton proclaimed principles he had no desire to uphold, and vowed a fight to the end - with someone else's soldiers. Mr Clinton's argument that Britain scuppered his 'bomb the Serbs' campaign is also disingenuous: John Major opposed it not because his government was divided, but because his Cabinet was united in regarding America's plan as useless.
The US committed similar mistakes in Somalia. Assuming that Washington alone could decide both the scale and the timing of its involvement, the US dispatched its soldiers to feed the local population, but expected others to stay behind and tackle the political fall-out. And, when that effort predictably failed, Clinton started accusing the UN. This would not do.
The UN special representative, retired admiral Jonathan Howe, is as American as apple pie, only slightly thicker. Throughout the operation, the US kept most of its soldiers under separate American command. It was Washington that personalised the conflict by ascribing all the troubles in Somalia to Mohamed Farah Aideed. And it was American soldiers who conducted the search for this warlord with extraordinary incompetence, paralysing all diplomatic efforts in the process. What is more, having tilted the UN's efforts towards a military 'solution', the US showed no stomach for what followed.
Washington's current approach represents the worst of both worlds. The argument that involvement in Somalia must be increased in order to facilitate a disengagement, cannot be expected to convince Americans who remember similar assertions during the Vietnam War. And the knowledge that, come what may, the US will be out of Somalia in six months, is the best incentive for the warlords to offer no meaningful compromise.
But the repercussions from Somalia and Yugoslavia run much deeper. Mr Clinton has always assumed that domestic rather than foreign policy wins votes. Correct, but there is nothing like a foreign policy disaster to sink a president. He has chosen for his foreign policy team a group of people who are profoundly unremarkable.
They mused about 'internationalism' and offered a 'new vision' with all the verve of a sub-standard academic composing his first learned article. In so doing, they have managed to antagonise everyone: Republicans scream that Mr Clinton has abdicated his constitutional power to an irresponsible international body; idealist Democrats assert that the President has not gone far enough in enhancing the UN. At no point has anyone bothered to explain to the American people what the disputes are all about: the administration talked to itself, and is now reaping the rewards of its incompetence.
Mr Clinton is committing a grave error if he continues to assume that world leadership is merely a matter of resolute words, of sitting in Washington and deciding who should be blamed for what disaster. With the failure in Somalia, the whole dream of using the UN to maintain a semblance of international order has gone. But something could be saved, even at this late hour, if the administration had the humility to admit its failures and drew the appropriate conclusions, rather than simply squabbling like a fishwife.
The US was acknowledged as leader of the Western world because it was prepared to place its forces where its mouth was; leadership carries advantages, but also liabilities. Finding the correct balance between the two is never easy, but a more productive approach would have been for Washington to consult its allies, instead of accusing everyone of incompetence. For, as an ancient Arab proverb goes, if one is looking for wisdom, one must search every bazaar. Not scream aimlessly between them.
The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
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