• U.S.

Today, Somalia … . . .Tomorrow, why not Bosnia?

11 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

TRUE TO HIS CAMPAIGN PROMise, Bill Clinton resolutely kept his focus on domestic affairs when he announced the first appointments to his Administration; they were all members of his economic team. But much as the President-elect might have wished it otherwise, the world outside was already closing in on him. Like most newcomers to the Oval Office, Clinton is quickly learning the power of international events to set the President’s agenda.

Foreign policy has leapfrogged to the top. In Somalia, the Marines are moving more slowly than expected to extend their security zone. Relief workers in the hinterlands are clamoring for rescue from attacks by armed gangs. At the U.N., Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made new demands on the U.S., insisting that American troops remain in Somalia until they have disarmed the warring clans and restored some central authority. And in Brussels, the NATO allies are looking once again at the possibility of using armed force against Serbian aggressors in the remnants of Yugoslavia.

In just a month, Clinton will be expected to have not only solutions to these specific problems but also a full-blown foreign policy that begins to define the post-cold war role of the U.S. “He knows that he’s going to do that, for better or worse, by what he does or doesn’t do,” says a Clinton adviser. The startlingly new way American forces are being used in Somalia — for humanitarian purposes, with no national interest at stake — has instantly opened the debate about where the new President, with his activist conception of government and criticism of Bush for holding back on Bosnia and Somalia, will be inclined to take the country. Rather than inoculating the U.S. against having to do something in Bosnia, the Somalia venture has only intensified the pressure to apply the same moral approach there.

From the beginning of the 1992 campaign, Clinton challenged certain aspects of George Bush’s foreign policy but chose to concentrate on the economy. He has followed the same pattern during the transition, publicly approving Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops to Somalia. Bush is still in office and Clinton without responsibility, so that seemed the proper path and the safest one politically. Nevertheless, the accretion of decisions in Somalia and the Balkans may already be serious enough to box in the new Administration from the day it takes office.

Clinton’s foreign-policy advisers say they know they will inherit unsolved issues and hot spots. But, one says firmly, “we should not and cannot conduct foreign policy between now and Jan. 20. The world needs to have no ambiguity about who’s President until then.” Clinton and his team are regularly informed, but not consulted, by the White House on major decisions: a secure phone allows National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to keep in contact with Clinton aides Sandy Berger and Nancy Soderberg. There are no complaints on either side about the one-way dialogue. “There’s no reason why he should be in on day-to-day decisions,” says another Clinton adviser. “So long as he can understand what the implications are for his own Administration, he has what he needs.”

Clinton was clearly aware last week that he will be pulled willy-nilly into foreign affairs. “The dividing line between foreign and domestic policy is increasingly blurred,” he said at a press conference in Washington. “Our Administration will be forced to spend a lot of time on foreign policy whether we want to or not.” In careful increments, he doled out clues to his thinking that were consistent with his campaign posture as a global activist but circumscribed to remain generally in line with Bush. Clinton acknowledged that a prolonged stay in Somalia might become unavoidable, broadening the mission from merely secure to “maintainable” supply lines. He noted that establishing a political infrastructure will take even longer. And as the West wrestled with ways to restore some hope in Bosnia, Clinton said that “anything we can do to try to turn up the heat and reduce the carnage is worth trying.”

As the days go by, Clinton’s team must quickly put some detail on these bare outlines. Team members are pondering the mess they will face in Somalia. By Washington’s definition, U.S. troops will leave when they have made the country safe for relief efforts. In a letter to Congress last week, Bush said American soldiers would be there “only as long as necessary to establish a secure environment” for humanitarian efforts. “We believe that prolonged operations will not be necessary,” Bush said.

That position does not coincide with Boutros-Ghali’s. He has said all along that the U.S. will have to disarm the warring clans in order to create a “secure environment.” The U.S. ducked that tricky question in writing its vague rules of engagement, which leave it up to local commanders to decide how much disarming to do. Now the Secretary-General is demanding that before going home American troops not only seize the Somali clans’ arsenals but also remove the mines that have been laid in the north of the country and set up a military police force to preserve order.

Only then, Boutros-Ghali says, will the U.N. provide peacekeepers to take over. Policymakers in Washington maintain that this is not what they agreed to and not what the relevant Security Council resolution provides. When Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger first made the offer of troops to the U.N. the day before Thanksgiving, says a senior U.S. official, the terms were unambiguous: “a narrow, limited mandate for our forces.” Now, says the official, “Boutros-Ghali is moving the goalposts.”

This will make things very difficult for Clinton. No follow-on U.N. peacekeeping force can be put into Somalia without Boutros-Ghali’s cooperation, and an American pullout without such a U.N. presence would be a disaster. “We may be looking at a very long commitment, measured in years, not months,” says a Clinton aide.

At the same time, the pressure to expand U.S. attention to Bosnia is building. The Bush Administration, which long considered Bosnia militarily untouchable, may be moving toward some form of action there. Powerful voices, including former Secretaries of State Cyrus Vance and George Shultz, have been demanding that the U.S. do something. “We have the assets,” said Shultz. “We have the bases. We should get about the task.” Even Ronald Reagan called for intervention “for humanitarian purposes.” As Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers told his parliament, “It is downright scandalous that there is intervention in Somalia but not in Yugoslavia.”

Pressure is also coming from the Islamic countries concerned about their fellow Muslims. The Islamic Conference has warned that if there is no significant international effort to help the Bosnians by Jan. 15, its member states could break the embargo on their own and supply Bosnian Muslims with arms. They are also considering sending Islamic troops to fight the Serbs, which could threaten to draw Muslim Albania and Orthodox Greece into the struggle.

Clinton has consistently pushed Bush to do more to help Bosnia. Last week he said that he understood why Bush did not want to send ground troops to Bosnia and that the operation in Somalia was easier and cheaper. “But,” he said, “there may be other things that can be done.”

He might be about to get his wish. The Security Council ruled last week that Serbian aggression in Bosnia threatens “international peace and security” and thus could be subject to military action directed by the U.N. In Brussels, NATO defense ministers followed up with agreement to “consider positively” any U.N. request to end the fighting in Bosnia and keep it from spreading. ‘If they should turn to NATO,” said its Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, “we would not say no.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went to the NATO meeting primed to urge armed enforcement of a no-fly order over Bosnia issued last Oct. 9, a measure Clinton called for during the campaign. Surveillance planes have watched ever since as hundreds of Serbian flights violated the order. Cheney told the allies that using air power to stop it was not so much a military question as one requiring “political decisions about what you would hope to achieve.”

Britain and France oppose shooting down Serbian planes for fear of bringing retribution on their peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. But officials in Washington predict that “an enforced no-fly is now inevitable.” Eagleburger, who is to attend NATO meetings this week, will be putting it forward as a formal proposal. After much discussion, it is likely to be accepted.

Nor is it necessarily all that will be done. The State Department is discussing a “decision memo” to rescind the embargo on arms shipments to Bosnia’s Muslims. Scowcroft may be leaning in that direction too. The Pentagon brass, which counts heavily in the process, opposes the idea. Once arms shipments begin, they fear, there will be calls for the U.S. to provide training for the newly armed fighters, which might mean American advisers on the ground — and that would start the U.S. down the slippery slope. Still, says a senior official, “I could see both of those steps” — enforcing the flight ban and ending the arms embargo — “by the end of this Administration.”

NATO’s own planners have drafted preliminary contingency plans for air patrols to back up the no-fly order — and further military actions like air strikes on Serbian artillery. British diplomats claim the U.S. has even floated the idea of contributing 100,000 troops to a Western force that could be deployed to prevent the Serbs from moving next into the former Yugoslav segments of Kosovo and Macedonia.

Military officers in Washington deny that, and most still argue that putting ground troops into the Balkans is unthinkable. One senior Defense official, however, refuses to be absolute in his denial. If Serbs march into the province of Kosovo, which has an Albanian majority, in an attempt at “ethnic cleansing,” says the official, “all bets are off.” There is contingency planning to handle that, he confirms, just as there is for almost any possible crisis. But he admits that “a prudent military leadership cannot ignore the possibility this will blow up.”

EVEN IF THE EXPLOsion does not occur, U.S. planners, like those at NATO, are putting together blueprints for what one of them calls “air power to compel behavior.” Such plans would provide a way to make Serbia suffer for its aggression in Bosnia by bombing Serbia’s power plants, fuel dumps, railway lines and bridges, the kind of infrastructure war the U.S. used to soften up Iraq. Cheney touched on this possible course at the NATO meeting last week. “The Secretary is not proposing going ahead with this stuff,” says one of his aides, “but he wants NATO to know our thoughts.”

Leaders of Clinton’s foreign policy team feel no lack of confidence or preparation. Every morning Clinton receives the same CIA briefing Bush does. Although the two Presidents have talked only once directly about Somalia, Scowcroft’s calls to Berger are frequent. There is no give and take in these calls, no mutual formulation of policy, no horse trading. “It’s a process of information exchange rather than consultation,” says a Clinton official. Meanwhile, Little Rock has small groups at work in each of the national security departments, preparing memos and outlining issues. “They’re talking to people and weighing options,” says a State Department official.

When he takes command, Clinton has indicated, he will not shrink from using American power and influence abroad. It may well be that although the outgoing Administration has saddled him with foreign ventures he might prefer not to have just now, he does not disapprove of any of the steps Bush either has taken in Somalia or seems about to take in Bosnia. If the President-elect objected seriously to them, he could say so — and possibly force Bush to draw back. But whether Clinton does so or not, he no longer suggests that domestic and economic affairs will be able to command all, or almost all, of his attention as President.

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