President Clinton, haunted by ghosts of past foreign policy debacles from Vietnam to Beirut, faced a series of agonizing choices on Somalia on Wednesday--and found, to his chagrin, that all of them looked bad.
His critics in Congress called for an immediate withdrawal from the battle zone in the Horn of Africa. But his advisers said that would leave Somalia in ruins and shatter the Administration's credibility abroad.
Military officials proposed dispatching massive reinforcements to bolster the under-equipped United Nations peacekeeping force. But that risked igniting a congressional revolt, while providing hostile forces in Somalia with high-value targets for snipers and hostage-takers.
And the middle course Clinton chose--sending a more modest contingent of additional troops for one last attempt to enforce security in Mogadishu, with the expectation that all American troops would be withdrawn in about six months--risked some of the disadvantages of each.
A slow retreat behind the U.N. banner could keep American troops in danger for months, yet still raise doubts about the reliability of Clinton's commitments to multinational peacekeeping forces.
The President said he was determined to end the American role in Somalia "honorably . . . with firmness and steadiness of purpose."
But no matter how well he manages the final outcome, the American intervention in Somalia, which began with high hopes as a new model for humanitarian action, instead seems destined to be remembered as a bitter example of how not to handle the crises of the post-Cold War world.
"American intervention overseas may become the major foreign policy question of the 1990s," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We're going to be asked to do it again and again. And our experience in Somalia has not been very good.
"We will get better at it as we go along," he added dryly.
How did Bill Clinton, a President with no discernible appetite for foreign military adventures, find himself in this predicament?
Several Administration officials noted sadly this week that their experience in Somalia proved that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. But in this case, it appears that the road was paved with a dose of inattention, as well.
When the United States turned over control of Somali peacekeeping operations to the United Nations in May, the Administration reluctantly agreed to leave behind some 1,700 combat troops--to help protect the 28,000-strong U.N. force. In return, the United Nations tailored its operation to American specifications, with a retired U.S. admiral in overall command and a U.S. Army major general in direct command of the American units.
The Administration, hoping that the troops would never be used, did not ask Congress or the public for any clear endorsement for their combat mission.
No President relishes the thought of telling the American people that he has sent troops into a dangerous situation. Clinton, who wanted the public to focus on his ambitious domestic agenda--not foreign policy--was no exception.
The President welcomed victorious troops home from the initial humanitarian mission to Somalia with a ceremony on the White House lawn, saying: "You have proved again that our involvement in multilateral operations need not be open-ended or ill-defined."
But when the multilateral operation was renewed, he gave no speeches laying out the troops' rules of engagement or conditions for their withdrawal.
Administration officials acknowledged that they avoided seeking approval from Congress in part because they did not want to pick a fight where none was necessary. But one result, Hamilton noted, is that Congress now feels free to criticize an operation it never formally authorized. "The executive branch is better off if it has our consent," he argued.
Similarly, some officials charged, when the U.N. force asked for reinforcements last summer, the Administration ducked the issue because it did not want to stir up controversy.
And when the mission turned dangerous after U.N. troops began fighting with the guerrilla forces of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in August, the Administration was initially divided over the proper response, officials said.
That left Clinton and his advisers at the mercy of events, making decisions day by day in an atmosphere of crisis.
At the United Nations in September, the President said decisions on the use of military force abroad could only be made on a case-by-case basis. But the spiral of violence in Somalia left him reacting on what might be called a worst-case-by-worst-case basis.
To at least one former official, the events called up a chilling echo of the tragedy in Lebanon 10 years ago this month, when 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut on a peacekeeping mission were killed by a suicide bomber as they sat in a poorly protected bunker.
"The parallels are very worrisome," said Caspar W. Weinberger, defense secretary at the time of the Beirut disaster. "What we're seeing is the inevitable result of leaving a group of forces in a situation where there is no realizable military mission."
When American forces were in Beirut, Weinberger recalled, then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz and others warned that the United States would suffer irreparable loss of face if it withdrew--an argument made about Somalia today.
"It's just as false now as it was then," Weinberger said. "Somalia has nothing to do with American credibility."
To others, there was an echo of Vietnam.
But Hamilton said that one of the lessons of Vietnam--that open-ended military commitments are dangerous--had been learned not only by Clinton but by Congress as well.
Shifting Views on Somalia
Americans are increasingly unhappy with the U.S. role Somalia, polls show. Here are findings from an ABC News survey:
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bill Clinton is handling the situation?
Asked Oct. 5 Asked June 28 Approve 33% 62% Disapprove 53% 29% No opinion 14% 10%
Should the United States keep troops in Somalia until there's a functioning civil government or do you think the United States should pulls its troops out very soon? (asked Oct. 5) Keep troops in: 28% Pull out: 64% No opinion: 8% *
If U.S. prisoners can't be freed through negotiations, do you think the United States should respond with a major military attack? (asked Oct. 5) Should attack: 75% Should not: 19% No opinion: 5% Other findings from Oct. 5 poll:
69% do not think America's vital interests are at stake
51% believe the United States should continue trying to capture warlord Mohammed Fatah Aidid.
56% back the President's plan to send more support to troops already there.
Some categories do not add up to 100% because of rounding
Source: ABC News poll based on random telephone interviews with adults nationwide. Oct. 5 survey involved 509 responses. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.