DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Column 3

SITTING ON A POWDER KEG

In November 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, flush with victory after booting the North Korean army's butt, announced he would "bring our boys home by Christmas."

But it took three more years and tens of thousands more American casualties before our troops finally made it home because MacArthur hadn't figured on the Red Chinese getting into the fight. Wars are that way -- easy to get into and, more often than not, as hard to get out of as a bear trap that's slammed through a leg.

Our military commitment in Somalia could snap shut like the Korean or Vietnam trap did. When President Clinton changed the mission in Somalia from feeding to fighting, our forces got a bloody nose. Before the blood dried, Clinton quit chasing clan leader Mohammed Aidid and started courting the guerrilla "general." Our troops were moved behind sandbags and placed on what Clinton calls a "stand-down position."

But at the same time, he sent mixed signals to Aidid by bringing in even more soldiers, who now sit like prisoners, barricaded in little forts and venturing out into the streets of Mogadishu only in heavily armored columns. Meanwhile, while building up to build down, Clinton promises to bring our men and women home by March 31, 1994.

Our troops are counting the days while the Somali guerrillas -- especially Aidid's 30,000-member, loosely knit guerrilla army -- become angrier, bolder and more warlike. Mogadishu is a powder keg not unlike Beirut was in 1983, when 242 Marines -- while marking time on another presence mission -- were killed by a terrorist bomb.

Politically or militarily, the United States cannot save that clan-ridden country. Somalia has never known democracy, and America doesn't have enough warriors in its ranks or money in its banks to teach the Somalis the ABCs of democracy. Somali history is filled with the terror of guerrilla campaigns against colonial masters and clans savaging one another. The longer we stay, the higher the cost will be in American lives and prestige.

If the shooting should start again, it would take a force nearly equivalent to what the United States had in Vietnam or Desert Storm just to put down Aidid's insurgents, and still we'd never be able to fulfill Clinton's goals: Restore order in southern Mogadishu, stop the Hatfield and McCoy-like clans from killing each other, establish a workable national police force and pressure the Somali clans to form an effective government. Somali history clearly shows these noble goals are not doable. Nor do any one of them have a damn thing to do with U.S. national security.

The drought and famine are over in Somalia. The corn is seven feet high and the people are well-fed. For now, except for southern Mogadishu, the country is at peace. Clinton should announce that George Bush's "God's work" -- which got us there in the first place -- is done and order our troops to come home.

Had President Johnson announced victory in Vietnam and departed in 1966, there wouldn't have been 58,000 American dead and hundreds of thousands wounded. Nor would America have been ripped asunder by someone else's civil war. Clinton should learn from the lessons of Vietnam and get out of Somalia now.

We have lost 30 warriors, had more than 300 wounded, spent more than $1.5 billion, and our troops are sitting targets just waiting to get shot. The longer we stay, the higher the chances for another U.S. bloodbath.

There is no reason for American soldiers to stay in Somalia without a military mission just to become the meat in another violent Somali sandwich. Salvaging Clinton's loss of face for poor judgment isn't reason enough.

The ships are ready. Clinton should fill them with our soldiers and bring them home by Christmas before it's too late to cut and run. To hang around until March 31, 1994 in a "stand-down position," whatever the hell that is, is a risk in a place where there is no gain, only more pain. I'll bet Douglas MacArthur would agree.