`SIR, we are ready to do anything, sir."
That was the gritty and determined response I received last week from generals to sergeants when I asked how our forces were adapting to their humanitarian role in Somalia. I didn't need to ask: Everywhere I looked in Mogadishu and Baidoa I saw pride and purpose in the faces and actions of American soldiers who had combined a dual responsibility of protection and humanitarian service.
At Mogadishu's bullet-ridden soccer stadium, Marines returned fire on clan snipers. Hours before, however, I had seen a United States military community outreach that could have come out of an international development textbook. Many thousands of lives have been saved and the transition from relief to rehabilitation has been expedited by the presence of our troops.
While the US has effectively applied military force in the past in Somalia, I was struck by how well the military adapted to a humanitarian role normally taken by the United Nations. The record of UN involvement was exceedingly disappointing. In interviews with soldiers, relief workers, and Somalis, the message was very clear that the UN's performance was deficient.
This is alarming considering that the US plan for Somalia is to enable the UN to help resuscitate the African nation.
The military seems to have learned some useful community liaison and diplomatic skills since the Vietnam days. In our briefings with United Task Force Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston and US special envoy Robert Oakley, as well as at the sites we visited, we were told that success of the military operation in Somalia owes much to our soldiers' well-honed skills in community outreach and logistical planning for relief agencies.
The waving hands of Somali children and the laudatory testimonies of relief workers confirm that UN troops have absorbed an expanding, and more demanding role. Yet while our forces are conducting on-the-job training for these activities, UN forces are skipping school. This is disturbing, and many in Somalia believe anarchy will return if the level of stability provided by our troops is not maintained by the UN.
While UN shortcomings can be cataloged and debated, it is much more productive to consider the lessons of Somalia in the current international climate. The much discussed "peace dividend" makes possible the implementation of dreams once thought unattainable during the cold war.
One possibility is designating a small element of our post-cold-war military as a "humanitarian force." The details of such an interservice entity would have to be structured by military experts. But the vision behind the blueprint could arise from recent experiences. The new role our forces are fulfilling in Somalia - not to mention in Dade County, Fla. or in the Kurdish areas of Iraq - is both morally correct and urgently needed.
People are hurting in these places. Their pain and turmoil has been relieved by military resources and know-how to activities as diverse as relief transport, community liaison, and the establishment of food and medical centers. The American military has compassionately delivered efficient relief assistance in a variety of difficult circumstances.
In Somalia, the US is blazing new paths others may emulate. A humanitarian force is an example that other nations can draw from. With humanitarian contingents contributed by many nations, the UN could be better prepared to address future Somalias. The availability of such "off the shelf" assets would void the perennial UN excuse that the mechanics of rounding up resources for each international catastrophe is the reason for fatal delays in involvement.
As the world's lone superpower the US has some leadership responsibility. In Somalia, we are leaders due to our military capability and the respect accorded us by the Somalis. Hence, there's a widespread fear that once the US pulls out, other nations will lose interest or simply be overwhelmed. The mantle of leadership is heavy, especially with many pressing domestic priorities.
However, the US does not have to bear sole responsibility. Our interests and those of suffering millions will be best served if we capitalize on our experience in Somalia and pursue a dialogue with other nations on the creation of an international force.
The Somali example demonstrates that lives are lost in the absence of leadership. Before the US can yield the responsibility for action in such a humanitarian crisis to the UN, it first must act to ensure that the UN has both the willingness and the capability to respond. Our forces are "ready to do anything" they are assigned. Our challenge is to provide leadership to ensure that the US military doesn't have to go it alone in the next humanitarian crisis.