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When the US Washes Its Hands of the World

Clinton's new policy for taking military action with allies is so restrictive that such action probably will never happen

WITH the United Nations and its member states bogged down in civil wars, there are increasing political, economic, and military pressures in Washington and other Western capitals to avoid engagement around the world. The mid-May Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25) reflects this reticence with its disingenuous proclamation of ``The Clinton Administration's Reform of Multicultural Peace Operations.'' The document represents yet another 180-degree policy reversal by the president, this time away from the ``aggressive multilateralism'' trumpeted at the outset of his administration.

The transformation in American attitudes toward the United Nations is dramatic. Only three years separate the bullish optimism that guaranteed survival to the Kurds in northern Iraq and the utter cynicism that ignores Rwanda's tragedy.

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While the ``superpower'' label is less and less appropriate, American leadership is still the sine qua non of meaningful UN initiatives. The meandering of the administration's foreign policy is particularly unsettling because - as has been clear from international responses in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and now Rwanda -

if the United States does not participate in the toughest assignments, no one else will either.

Policymakers in Washington have abandoned the pro-UN stance that had formed part of Mr. Clinton's campaign. Symptomatic of this shift was the contentious interagency debate that began in mid-1993 on the wisdom of placing US combat troops under UN command as had been recommended in those portions of a draft presidential directive leaked to the media.

The same tension surfaced in September as Clinton delivered his maiden speech before the General Assembly in New York while heavy US casualties were being sustained in Mogadishu. The Defense Department's 1993 Bottom-Up Review questioned the feasibility of multilateral military efforts in general and, in particular, the wisdom of sending American troops as part of UN efforts to restore the elected government in Port-au-Prince.

After a year of interagency feuding, ill-fated military operations in Somalia and Haiti, and dithering about the former Yugoslavia, PDD 25 justifies the latest US about-face. The so-called policy reflects the extent to which Washington has washed its hands of responsibility and abandoned the mantle of leadership.

Before the US agrees to participate in any operation, PDD 25 spells out strict guidelines to be considered: American interests, availability of troops and funds, the necessity for US participation, congressional approval, a clear date for withdrawal, and appropriate command and control arrangements.

Moreover, Washington will not approve any new UN operation, with or without US soldiers, unless other restrictive criteria are satisfied. The crisis must represent a threat to international peace and security (specifically, threantened access to starving civilians), gross abuses of human rights, or a violent overthrow of a democratically elected government. Any intervention must involve clear objectives, and, most important, consent of the parties and a realistic exit strategy.

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New operations will rarely, if ever, satisfy all of these conditions. Thus, we can expect more reactions like that to Rwanda's gruesome ordeal. In response to the slaughter of some 200,000 civilians and the appearance of the largest number of refugees (250,000 according to estimates) ever to materialize in a 24-hour period, the international community reduced its commitment from 2,700 troops to a few hundred. Rwanda's abandonment follows the retreat of US and Canadian peacekeepers aboard the USS Harlan County headed for Port-au-Prince, the withdrawal of US and other Western troops from Somalia, and the US refusal to consider sending ground forces to Bosnia.

How can an administration elected with a promise to trim military expenditures justify maintaining a $250 billion budget for the Pentagon while at the same time renouncing participation in UN security operations?

With Pontius Pilate as the new model for American engagement in armed conflicts, the UN and those suffering in civil wars are in desperate straits. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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