LEADING ARTICLE : Waging war on the UN

President Clinton may yet veto the Bills advancing through Congress to cut American contributions to United Nations peacekeeping and restrict the power of the President to send troops abroad on multinational missions. But American disillusionment with the UN will only be increased by a presidential veto.

This conflict is as much about domestic politics as foreign involvement. It stems from the victory of Republicans in the congressional elections last November. Their triumph ensured that the Clinton presidency - already scarred by epic congressional battles over the President's economic and health plans - would forever be hostage to a hostile House and Senate.

It was not long before America's boldest politician, the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, found an easy showcase for the foreign policy aspects of his "Contract with America". It emerged in the portentously titled National Security Revitalisation Act, which passed the House last week by 241 to 181 votes.

Mr Gingrich capitalised on the UN misadventure in Somalia, which seemed, to critics, to sum up all that was wrong. The intervention lacked clear purpose. It entailed needless American losses. There appeared, at times, to be as many warring factions in the UN command structure as there were on the streets of Mogadishu. All this led to the failure of the mission.

Somalia may have encapsulated the ills of the UN but it remains a bad example upon which to make policy for a nation as mighty as the United States. The considered judgement of US foreign interests has become unhealthily mingled with the emotional struggle between Bill Clinton and conservative America.

Few politicians could be more aware of this than Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate. He has crafted a less partisan version of the Bill. Senator Dole has three reasons for prudence. First, he is by nature an internationalist, more aware than Mr Gingrich of America's complex interests beyond its shores. Second, he knows that those interests have been well served by America's ability to invoke the authority of the United Nations. Third, he wants to run for president in 1996 and, presumably, he has no wish to tie the hands of a future executive.

Whether the veto is exercised or not, the fact is that American involvement in the UN has been placed under debate. The UN does indeed need a shake- up - in this, its 50th year, it cries out for reform. But peacekeeping is the wrong battleground on which to fight. Better to wage war on the rotten boroughs of the UN's agencies than to make international security hostage to the ideological struggle between President Clinton and his foes. The best response to Mr Gingrich's populist zeal is a drive to make the UN credible again.