In a world of bitter limitations: As Clinton and the UN are condemned, Peter Pringle argues that they face impossible tasks

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MUCH as it may appear to the contrary, the Clinton administration is not engaged in a cynical plot to end the United Nations' role in peace-keeping, nor is it planning to trim UN efforts at peace-making.

It is simplistic and wrong to say, as many have done since the failure to prevent the massacres in Rwanda, that none of the major powers, especially the United States, cares about what happens in this tiny African country - or for that matter in Haiti, or in any other current or coming civil war in small nations, because such nations have little strategic import.

It is all too easy to accuse the US administration of being befuddled, which it certainly is, and numbed, which it also is, by the perplexity of the ethnic violence infecting the world. But so is every government, the UN secretariat, foreign affairs experts, political scientists, and the public. No one has a solution for such intractable problems as these.

Washington, however, has been its own worst enemy. Initially it was full of optimism for the role the UN might play in the new, post- Communist world, not only to keep the peace, once attained, but also to make peace. The administration responded with gusto - far too much gusto as it turned out - to the Agenda for Peace from the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, which was itself an over-optimistic document setting a new peace-keeping role for the UN.

After the fiasco of the UN operation in Somalia, which included the death of 18 US Rangers and a failed hunt for General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the administration became over-optimistic about the UN's possible role. President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 25, which had two messages: the UN is an inadequate instrument of peace-keeping, and the US is spending too much on UN failures. There are limits, Mr Clinton told the General Assembly last autumn: the UN should not overstretch itself. As a US foreign policy official observed privately, however: 'PDD 25 is just a piece of paper; we've been through optimism and pessimism, now is the time for realism about the UN.'

Realism, in Clinton administration terms, means to acknowledge that the US is going through an isolationist phase and that there are strong proponents of isolation in Congress. That group is led by powerful Republican senators such as Bob Dole of Kansas, Newt Gingrich of Georgia and John McCain of Arizona. If Congress is to continue to fund the UN, this group has to be massaged. It has to be persuaded of the need for the UN to take action in the 'international interest', not simply the more narrowly defined special interests of its most powerful members. And before this can happen, the administration argues, the UN must chalk up successes. Rwanda, to its misfortune, never looked like being one of them.

American's isolationists naturally want nothing to do with Rwanda. But neither does the pro-UN group in the administration, led by Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, and Tony Lake, the national security adviser. Much though intervention would serve their cause, they believe that inserting any large and well equipped fighting force into the middle of Rwanda and asking it to protect local civilians and bring about a ceasefire would be pure fantasy. It wouldn't happen.

The Albright-Lake faction is trying to act responsibly in the face of the isolationist onslaught and trying to prevent the number of isolationists from growing. But they receive no thanks. Their strategy is not acknowledged by citizens who see machete massacres on their television screens and want someone to be held instantly responsible - and that someone is always the UN.

The administration's strategy for fending off the isolationists is not good enough for the pundits, reporters or aid workers, who see the terrifying bloodletting at first hand and complain bitterly about the half-hearted response of the UN and the weak-kneed US. Inevitably, they then raise the abysmal US record of payments to the UN. By September, America will owe dollars 1bn to the UN general account. What kind of example is that, they ask?

It is pretty shameful by any yardstick, but the political realities are seldom, if ever, mentioned. Those UN payments have to be authorised by Congress, and to discover just how isolationist, or anti- UN, this legislative body has become, you need look no further than the recent votes in favour of a unilateral lifting of the UN-imposed arms embargo against Bosnia.

The administration's strategy is not enough, either, for Mr Boutros-Ghali. While he is right to use the word 'genocide' in Rwanda and exhort the 'international community' to action against gross violations of human rights there, he should single out Congress as well as the administration for blame.

It is wrong for him to convey, as he has, the impression that troops for a large peace- keeping and peace-making force in Rwanda were readily available and that the only reason why they did not set off was because the US administration doubted the viability of such an expedition. Those troops were not available two weeks ago, nor are they today.

So will the troops ever be ready for such a mission? Will the UN ever be equipped to send a force of its own into places such as Rwanda, as Sir Brian Urquhart, the former UN peace-keeper and assistant secretary-general, and others have proposed?

Before such an event, two things must happen. First, there must be a new legal framework to relate UN actions directly to the 'international interest' in place of the narrow 'sovereign interest' of times past. Second, corps of 'foreign legionnaires' must be created within national armies that volunteer to fight for causes other than their own countries' vital interests.

The Pentagon and other ministries of defence will be against such innovations, claiming that they needlessly separate military units and violate camaraderie. Congress will be against such moves, too, unless the UN can show in the meantime that it can carry out successful operations within its own limitations. That is the reality of the United Nations, and of its key supporter, the United States.

(Photograph omitted)