Leading Article: The case for staying on

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is right to put pressure on the Bush administration over the scope and duration of the UN-sponsored military mission that US forces are leading in Somalia. Ironically, his case is strengthened by the very mistrust in which the UN is held in Somalia, thanks to the incompetent and feeble behaviour of its aid officials in the earlier stages of the famine. He too is disliked in Somalia, because he comes from Egypt and served in a government that persisted to the end in supporting the former tyrannical president, Siad Barre. It is not only for their blood feuds that Somalis have long memories.

Mr Boutros-Ghali argues that US troops in Somalia should not hand over to a UN force as quickly as the Americans would apparently like; that the Americans, rather than the putative UN force, should disarm the clansmen whose fighting and looting caused the famine; and that they should establish secure conditions right across the country. The Americans, by contrast, see their troops playing a more limited role. Mr Boutros-Ghali says they want him to plan immediately for the transition to a UN peacekeeping force.

The Bush administration believes the task force, which includes troops from several other nations, should disarm Somali gunmen only if they threaten troops or relief operations. It is far from clear how long it intends to keep the estimated 20,000 US troops in Somalia: 20 January (inauguration day for Bill Clinton) was the original target date for pulling out. Subsequently a longer haul into March seemed to be envisaged.

Much will depend on the attitude of the new US administration. Mr Clinton has given his support to American troops going in, and has not said much about them coming out. Since his foreign policy is expected to have a humanitarian flavour, it would be surprising if he did not see the logic of the UN Secretary-General's case against a 'premature' pull-out. The mission itself establishes an important precedent: for the first time, a substantial number of US troops are being used to intervene under UN auspices in the affairs of a notionally sovereign state for essentially humanitarian reasons. Instead of killing people, or keeping the peace, these soldiers are saving lives by ensuring that food and medical supplies reach civilians dying of starvation.

Such a mission may be more finite and less epic, but it is no less noble than the task of guaranteeing the security of the free world against the threat of Soviet invasion or nuclear annihilation. Through the 40 years of the Cold War, the Americans showed their staying power as the defenders of freedom. Sometimes that mission was misused to justify dubious interventions, be it through proxies in Latin America and Africa or directly in South-east Asia. But there was no doubting the intensity of the commitment.

The Cold War is over, but the United States remains a formidable military power. Gradually both it and the UN are moving towards a new role: that of guarding innocent civilians from the grossest abuses of criminal governments or warlords. The task for the US government is to convince the American people that such a role is no less worthwhile than that played by US forces when Soviet-style Communism threatened the subversion, and even destruction, of Western democracy.