MAKE A NOTE of the date. Bill Clinton is keeping a promise.
Last October the president declared that all US troops would be out of Somalia by no later than March 31. That's today, and the troops are out.
What a foul mood we were in over Somalia last October. Eighteen servicemen had been killed and some 75 wounded in a vicious gunfight that had dragged on for 15 hours. One US soldier, helicopter pilot Michael Durant of New Hampshire, had been taken hostage. The corpse of another American had been dragged half-naked through the streets by jeering Somalis.
Worst of all, it turned out that the whole tragic botch could have been avoided if Les Aspin, then the defense secretary, hadn't turned thumbs down when Americans on the scene begged for reinforcements.
By last October we no longer cared very much about starving children, tribal warlords, or whether Somalia was in the Horn, Hoof, or Hangnail of Africa. We just wanted our boys home, and the sooner the better. So why the delay until March 31, almost six months?
Because, President Clinton warned, "If we were to leave Somalia tomorrow, other nations would leave, too. Chaos would resume. . . . In a sense, we came to Somalia to rescue innocent people in a burning house. . . If we leave them now, those embers will reignite into flames and people will die again."
Say what? Abandon Somalia in the fall and chaos will resume; announce you'll wait until spring to abandon Somalia and everything will be fine? Interesting theory, but don't try holding water in it.
Here, courtesy of Reuters, is what Mogadishu looks like this week:
"Somalis have launched an orgy of looting and gunfights around United Nations bases in Mogadishu, where peace-keepers were struggling to prevent mayhem just two days after US forces pulled out."
It quoted UN officials as saying "Somalis were cutting holes through wire fences around the UN-controlled airfield and slipping past Egyptian guards. At the heavily defended seaport they siphoned fuel out of UN storage tanks and made off with tires and office equipment. . . .
"The looting sprees began as the last German, Italian and US troops were pulling out. . . . As the last American amphibious assault vehicles splashed into the sea and the US Navy ships vanished over the Indian Ocean horizon, the looters moved in. . . .
"At the seaport, a gunfight erupted at dawn when gangs of Somalis attacked the entrance. The attackers belong to a group called the 'asmahud,' which ran the port before the Americans arrived in December 1992. The violence closed the port until further notice."
In short, the gangsters and punks of Mogadishu have picked up where they left off when the Marines arrived 16 months ago. The United States entered Somalia to fill a vacuum. It exits Somalia leaving a vacuum. How did Operation Restore Hope go so wrong?
In two ways.
First, no consensus was ever built for going in. There are instances when purely moral, humanitarian, nonstrategic causes can rank among the vital interests of the United States. But those cases have to be articulated by political leaders, not just echoed from CNN newscasts. Asserting, as President Bush did when he ordered 28,000 soldiers to ship out, that "some crises in the world cannot be resolved without American involvement," was not an explanation, it was a truism.
But Bush and Clinton made an even bigger blunder. They put the United Nations in charge of something important.
Bush said at the outset that American troops would stay in Somalia just long enough to open supply routes and halt the starvation -- and would then hand over responsibility for restoring stability in Somalia to the UN secretary general.
Leave it to him to fail to learn the lesson of his greatest triumph. The good guys won the Gulf War because the US ran it. We did the commanding, the fighting, the leading. The UN was told to sit in a corner and pass resolutions -- its forte. Between the world's sole superpower and the world's biggest debating society, that is the only kind of partnership that makes sense.
But in Somalia that division of labor was turned inside out. The superpower relinquished responsibility for keeping the peace -- and thousands of its troops -- to the debating society. Both swiftly found out there was no peace to be kept. The United Nations assumed command the way Michael Dukakis mounted that tank: looking preposterous and small. It had no strategy for brokering a settlement among Somalia's factions and no ability to impose one. It had no command-and-control nerve center. It had no plan.
Letting the United Nations run anything is a mistake. Expecting it to run a military operation was a recipe for calamity.
When America won't lead, no one else will, either. Ronald Reagan understood that in his gut. He was the last US president who did.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)