THE death of four American soldiers by a remote control land mine in Mogadishu has again focused attention on Somalia. With Sarajevo under siege and the Middle West flooded and the European currency collapsing it has been easy to forget the United Nations mission in Mogadishu, which has been struggling on all summer lacking clarity and consensus among the participants about what it should do or be.
Some feel the United States should stay in Somalia and "finish the job" - conduct a complete and exhaustive sweep of Mogadishu, rounding up various great and small warlords in preparation for a civil society.
Others, such as Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, seized by the death of the four Americans, argue the US should withdraw completely, since "the job" - as originally defined by the Bush administration - has been completed. There is little hunger in Somalia today and a bumper harvest is on its way in the south.
The White House is struggling to find middle ground. On Monday administration officials said plans were underway to remove US troops quickly. On Tuesday other officials outlined plans for a commando team to seek out and capture Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, who has been the chief thorn in the side of the UN mission; it was also made clear that the US is not withdrawing from the mission any time soon.
Like it or not, the US is setting an example in Somalia. Feeding starving people was a fine act, but it did not end the feuding and fighting of the Somalis. To now withdraw because matters are chaotic will set a bad precedent and be seen abroad as more confirmation of a larger withdrawal of the US role in the world.
The US must find and carry out a clear strategy in Somalia. Not doing so leaves everyone in a muddle. Currently, there is a battle on for the minds of the Somali people. They are not sure whether to listen to their own local radicals arguing that UN forces represent a renewal of colonialism, or to see them as peacemakers trying to restore law and order. UN neutrality in dealing with the warlords has proven ineffective. It may now embolden other warlords to take Aideed's place, if he is captured.
The UN must act strongly and wisely over a significant period of time as a force for law. It can't yet be said that either the UN or the US has done all it could.