Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Commanders Are Right to Use Caution in Somalia

Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Commanders Are Right to Use Caution in Somalia

Article excerpt

The Somalian relief expedition is a classic example of what happens when the opening parade is over, the martial music dies on the morning breeze and the hard grubbing begins.

The operation wasn't a week under way before relief agencies began complaining that the Marines weren't moving fast enough. The grumbling began just as quickly in the media, where the supply of military genius is inexhaustible, that the Americans had arrived with too much muscle and applied it with too much force.

After the first casualties, some of the reporters in Mogadishu counted the bullet holes in the truck that crashed through the roadblock and questioned military spokesmen sharply about whether 100 bullet holes were too many. The nice thing about making this kind of criticism is that you don't have to say how many bullet holes would be just right.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who clearly wants more bang-bang for the American buckbuck, sought to instruct President Bush about what Bush's understanding of the American role in Somalia ought to be. Boutros-Ghali wants American troops to stay as long as it takes to "pacify" Somalia, which hasn't been "pacified" since the European colonialists pulled out a generation ago.

The hawks, sipping white wine in the press box, want Somalia to be a preliminary bout for Bosnia (and if we're on a roll, we could even roll into Soviet Georgia). The prudent and cautious voices are mostly from the military establishment.

One of those voices belongs to Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnson, the Marine commanding the operation. "My goal," he reminded Boutros-Ghali on Dec. 13, "is not to disarm Somalia. I have a rather precisely described mission, and that is to establish the right security environment to allow for the free movement of relief supplies to the Somali people."

Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, in Stockholm (the epicenter of Vietnam War protests a full generation ago), said two conflicting things at once. This is in the grand old tradition of the hard-hitting State Department, with Eagleburger being careful not to undercut his colleague at the United Nations, since it's only at the expense of the American commander in Mogadishu. …

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