That Mess in Somalia

The world saw the grim pictures: the bloody corpse of an American soldier paraded through the streets of Mogadishu as crowds of Somalis cheered, and a captive American pilot tensely answering Somali interrogators in a scene eerily reminiscent of the U.S. POWs once held in Iraq. That's surely pitiful thanks for the U.S. troops who originally went to Somalia to rescue the nation from starvation. That success brought cheers from Somalia's people last December. Now U.S. soldiers are being jeered--and sometimes killed.

Two temptations surge in the emotions. One is to send in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to even the score; the other is to get every American the heck out immediately. But neither of these extreme actions would make for wise policy. The best approach is the one being pursued by the Clinton Administration, which seeks a dignified, controlled but inexorable exit from what is becoming a nightmare.

Partisans of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid shamelessly take responsibility for inflicting heavy U.S. casualties: 12 soldiers killed and 78 wounded in recent days. They gloat, saying a number of Americans have been captured. (The Pentagon would say only that six servicemen were missing.)

President Clinton has warned against any mistreatment of U.S. hostages, but a warning is not enough. For the sake of relatives and the morale of U.S. troops everywhere, no hostage must be abandoned.

Finding and rescuing captured Americans would not be easy. The President has wisely resisted any urge to teach Aidid a lesson through a huge military buildup--one that could mire the United States in Somalia. He has instead responded by applying a little more muscle--more troops, including 250 Army Rangers, and heavy artillery. That ought to help the 27,000 U.N. personnel who have been struggling to make peace amid escalating civil war. More U.S. force may be needed, but our days in Somalia should be numbered. In small numbers.

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