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Views on U.S. Military Missions in Bosnia and Zaire

November 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The President announced Friday that he had agreed, in principle, to two new overseas appointments of U.S. troops. Eighty-five hundred U.S. forces will be sent to Bosnia early next year as part of a NATO follow-on force, and up to four thousand U.S. troops may be sent to Central Africa as part of an international humanitarian relief force. As we reported in the News Summary, refugees continue to move into Rwanda from camps in Zaire today but in smaller numbers than over the weekend. As many as 1/2 million Rwandans may have returned home, but another 1/2 million remain cut off from assistance 100 miles or more inside Zaire. A U.S. military advance group is in Rwanda assessing the situation.

MAJ. GEN. EDWIN SMITH, U.S. Army: We are reporting that there are some specific military capabilities that can be helped, if they’re asked for, by the government of Rwanda, but we’re not giving any particular courses of action. Those are yet to be developed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A decision about the African deployment is expected later this week. What is the proper role for U.S. forces in this post-Cold War era? To look at that, we turn to our panel of regional commentators: Mike Barnicle of the “Boston Globe,” Clarence Page of the “Chicago Tribune,” Lee Cullum of the “Dallas Morning News,” Patrick McGuigan of the “Daily Oklahoman,” Cynthia Tucker of the “Atlanta Constitution,” and joining them tonight is Robert Kittle of the “San Diego Union-Tribune.” Thank you all for being with us. Clarence, you heard what Congressman Gephardt said. He talked about the need to be part of a worldwide coalition to help solve problems like Bosnia and Central Africa. Is this a proper use for U.S. troops, in your view?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: It’s proper in the absence of anything else. We are the world’s last superpower. We must behave like one. We have yet to define what that is in the post-Cold War world that Congressman Gephardt was describing. This is certainly the moral thing to do–to go in on a rescue mission to Zaire. We kind of still have a television-led foreign policy, where we’re seeing these pictures of human suffering on the air, and we feel obliged to do something, even if what we are to do isn’t exactly clear, even if the ground is constantly shifting now, with the people who are the victims, half of them moving back to where they came from and to an uncertain future. Bosnia is also uncertain. A year ago, I didn’t believe we’d be out in a year. I think most Americans didn’t believe we’d be out in a year. It certainly sounds good to hear your President saying, we’ll be out in a year, nevertheless, a year has passed, and I think most of us are happy that things aren’t worse than they are now, that things seem to have moved along at a steady pace. And as long as that continues, the President will be able to get away with this type of a foreign policy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, what do you think? Are these valid uses for U.S. military policy?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Elizabeth, I think that they probably are. You know, there was a piece written by Ed Lutwak in “Foreign Affairs” that really got my attention several months ago. He said that governments have always engaged in limited military operations–the ancient Romans did; the French did in the 18th century–in order to raise the price of aggression or because our national respect–self-respect requires it. And I think our national self-respect certainly demands that we help in Zaire. As far as Bosnia is concerned, I certainly hope the new deployment will help keep the carnage at bay. I want to add that the “Dallas Morning News” today, or over the weekend, rather, had an editorial questioning strongly the President’s honesty about this deployment. They see it as a new policy and a promise broken, but I certainly hope it can help. And if there can be a year that’s carnage-free, maybe real life can get going there again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, a valid use of U.S. power?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I don’t know if it’s a valid use. You know, the last time a multinational military organization went in to this part of the world, it was called the Belgian Congo back in the 1960’s, and it had a rather disastrous result. The secretary general actually of the United Nations died while he was down there checking out what was happening. I think there’s a lot of danger that is being understated to some extent, even though it’s wonderful to see the way things have shifted in the last few days as the people there, themselves, have attempted–it looks like–to start to work some things out. I’m very concerned because of the situation that our troops are going into. You know, the French backed the more extremist elements of the Hutus right up until the end of 1994. There’s a lot of folks in that part of the world with some grudges. And some of those grudges are justified, and I’m just not sure that this is in America’s national interest. I think this is their conflict, and we ought to encourage peaceful settlement, perhaps do some things to help with humanitarian aid. I’m just not sure our military should be going in because the military, inevitably, is a blunt instrument, not a scalpel. And what’s needed right now is indigenous forces to decide to work things out. I’m not sure the United States can be all that helpful, at least through the military.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about Bosnia, Pat?



PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, the President knew–you know, this is kind of an interesting thing–Clarence made an interesting observation, and he’s probably right, and that was that most people probably didn’t believe we were going to get out within a year like the President said. But I, for one, am a little bit troubled by this idea that duplicity–deliberate two-facedness–has to become a part of our foreign policy. The President and a lot of his allies often talked about the lessons of Vietnam. I think one of the lessons that should have been learned about the involvement in Vietnam is to be as honest as possible with the American people at all times. And I’m not sure this administration did that. The redeployment, the extension, I should say, of the mission was predictable at least since the middle part of the summer, and yet, it continued to be denied right up until the day after the election on November 6th, when they began to put out a different message. So I just don’t think that this administration can really be trusted to do much, other than watch out for its own political interests. If I was a member of Congress, I would take a very skeptical look at this extension of the mission of our military.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia Tucker, would you take a skeptical look on Bosnia, and also, where do you come down on the issue of dangers that Zaire presents?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, both of these missions are certainly dangerous, but I disagree with Patrick very strongly for saying that this administration is only looking out for its interest. It is absolutely abundantly clear that President Clinton has absolutely nothing to gain by committing troops for an additional stay in Bosnia, or by considering sending troops to Zaire. Now, it is the right thing to do. We have a moral interest here. If, in fact, we want to be respected as the world’s remaining superpower, we ought to act like one. And that means leading–leading in areas that are dangerous. It was certainly naive to think that the mission in Bosnia could be accomplished in just a year. In fact, it would be a foolish foreign policy which says to combatants on both sides, oh, we’re going to be out of there in a year, and then you can get back to whatever you’re doing. We have accomplished some things in Bosnia. It is appropriate for troops to stay and do more. It is very dangerous, as it is very dangerous in Zaire, but let’s remember that the administration has considered very carefully what it is doing in both places. In Zaire, they’ve been very careful. They’re stating the limits of their objectives very narrowly here. They haven’t even at this point decided to go. They said that they would reassess, because of the conditions over the weekend, and if they do go in, they have a very, very narrow focus, not nation-building, not separating warring combatants, but laying down enough cover to ensure that humanitarian aid–food and medicine–can be provided to keep people from starving to death. And, yes, I think that that is an appropriate use of American military troops.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, do we have a moral duty, as Cynthia thinks we do?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: I don’t know. I think morality is a bit deeper than politics, but I think both things are probably–Bosnia and Zaire–are probably more an affirmation of who we think we are worldwide, who we want to be worldwide, than it is anything else. We want to be the good guys. We want to be the international 911. You need help; call us. You’re hungry; we’ll feed you. And I think what you end up with, unfortunately, in this situation, especially Zaire, is a picture-driven foreign policy. There’s a gnawing frequency to these things. They always seem to occur in Central Africa. They always seem to occur around Thanksgiving or Christmas here. They always get people, Americans, on the edge of their seats as we watch these pictures of starving children and trembling wives and dead husbands by the side of the road, and we want to do something. But it would also seem that it’s rather odd that you have a White House with its vast intelligence apparatus and the Defense Department with its huge and intricate World Wide Web that they couldn’t have done something earlier. They seem not to be very good with planning, but they seem to be quite good at reacting to the pictures that affect all of us on television. I think all of us want to do something. We all have a lot of things here in this country, and want to share them. We want to share the wealth. We want to protect people. The world’s a dangerous place. We can’t always do that, and that’s how we often end up getting in trouble, by trying to do too much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, a picture-driven foreign policy, do you agree with that?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I certainly think it is a picture-driven foreign policy, and that’s part of the problem. We’ve had with the Clinton administration a rather ad hoc approach to foreign policy. And while I think the operations in Zaire and in Bosnia are both proper and serve the nation’s interest, there are two things about the administration’s handling that trouble me. One is that the administration seems to be coming at both of these operations with some reluctance. In Zaire, we’re getting involved only after the Canadians promised to take the lead and send in a force which we will act as a backup to. In Bosnia, again, we didn’t act on the follow-up force until we were really forced–till our hands were forced by the other partners in NATO, in particular, the NATO secretary general, who over the last few days last week was really pushing the administration to make a decision on this. And the second troubling aspect of it is that I think the administration has done very little–far too little–to build public support for this kind of international intervention abroad. I think it serves the interests of the United States. But if we don’t build public support for it, if we had this kind of muted debate over it, then once the shooting starts, we run the risk that the American people, as they did in the case of Somalia, simply insist that we pull out. And what worries me is that we’re in this period where isolationism seems to be making a comeback–this very latent impulse that’s always under the surface in the United States that really dates back to Washington’s farewell address–and this administration has done very little to overcome that. And so, to me, the biggest concern is that we still have not done much to define what American’s role in the world should be. Certainly, the presidential campaign did very little to–if anything–to define that role. Foreign affairs was practically off the table altogether. The Republican approach on the Hill has been to practically ignore foreign policy. The Contract with America had no foreign policy provisions, and meanwhile, the foreign affairs budget–the foreign aid budget–has been declining in real terms. So I’m concerned about the broader strategic picture of the United States, of Americans in general, not seeing any need for these kinds of operations abroad.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about that, Cynthia? You said superpowers–if we’re going to be a superpower, we have to lead, we have to lead even where it’s dangerous, but is the President leading enough and defining the missions enough?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I don’t think we can have an overall–overarching vision in this kind of world. We’re no longer in this major struggle between Communism and democracy that dominated our foreign policy for forty or fifty years. We’re in a very different world where many different kinds of conflicts are going on in many different parts of the world, some large, some small. The conditions in Central Africa, for example, are very different from the conditions in the Middle East. I’m not sure you can have an overarching foreign policy that addresses both, but this part is certainly true. I am concerned that the American people have not been given enough information about why these issues are important to them, why it is important for the United States to be involved strategically, or to be leading, and, yes, in some cases to be spotting problems before they appear on our television screens. What concerns me about Africa is not as much the crisis in Zaire, which I think nations all over the world will do something about, but what about Nigeria, which is falling apart? It should have been a country which was settling into democracy by now. Things are going downhill there. But we’re paying very little attention to that. So in some areas, the United States is not exerting the leadership that it ought to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, what do you think about that? Do we need an overarching foreign policy to be enunciated?

LEE CULLUM: Yes, of course we do, Elizabeth. But that’s going to have to happen over time. It’s going to have to unfold. It’s going to take a great deal of thinking and a great deal of experience to bring it about. In the meantime, I think that we have to engage in a policy of watchful waiting. I do think we have to engage in some limited operations, and I want to say that I think it’s terribly important that our troops in Zaire operate in a context of Somalia, in a context of the lessons of Somalia. They must be properly equipped. The Dallas News was saying that over the weekend. I think they’re right. As you remember, the administration tried to deny equipment last time. Bradley fighting vehicles were requested and never arrived; that can’t happen. But there’s no reason not to engage in small-scale operations where we can help, as long as we can help and leave when we cannot, while we think our way through to an overarching design, which eventually will emerge.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you all very much.