The U.N. raid in Somalia is a quantum leap for international peacekeeping, redefining the rules of engagement and intervention in ways that could set precedents for future operations in areas far beyond the horn of Africa.
The offensive strike against warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his militia contrasts sharply with other peacekeeping operations in which U.N. "blue helmets," always outnumbered and outgunned by local forces, merely monitor rather than keep the peace. Even in volatile Cambodia, U.N. forces are empowered to use force or firepower only when under attack.
The Somalia action, intended as punishment for the June 5 ambush in which 23 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed, could make or break the biggest humanitarian effort ever undertaken by the United Nations, according to U.S. analysts and former U.N. officials.
On a more fundamental level, it could become a model for how, where and when the international community pools resources and clout to resolve sporadic regional crises likely to erupt with increasing frequency in the post-Cold War world.
"If the United Nations succeeds in neutralizing a warlord without great damage to its relationship with the Somali environment, it could help speed up the process of reconciliation and bode well for future U.N. operations," said Mohammed Sahnoun, former U.N. envoy to Somalia.
In the immediate aftermath of the raid, however, Sahnoun and others also worried about the alternative scenario.
"If tension is increased, if more people die, if Somalis begin looking for retaliation, it could be counterproductive for all U.N. peacekeeping and crisis management efforts, current and future," Sahnoun said. "The consequences could be extremely detrimental to the image of the United Nations worldwide."
Within hours of the U.N. strike, in fact, a leading relief agency warned that the action mighthave endangered relief efforts.
The raid showed a lack of understanding of Somalia and commitment to the longer-term crisis, said Nicholas Hinton, director general of Save the Children, which has hundreds of relief workers in Somalia. "Our fear for the future is that the country will become a military holding operation," Hinton told BBC radio. "The main goal is in danger of being lost, which is tragic for the children of Somalia and the people of Somalia as a whole."
The United Nations, which granted new powers to its 18,000 troops deployed in Somalia after last weekend's ambush, appears to be gradually accepting a role as a global force, albeit largely in reaction to crises rather than by choice.
The shift has been endorsed by a formal U.N. Security Council resolution and ratified by military practice. It is now clear that under certain circumstances, aggression by U.N. forces is not only allowed, it is mandated.
The Somali strike is unlike earlier U.N. operations, particularly the "police action" in Korea of the 1950s. Orchestrated and executed largely by the United States, that operation was endorsed by the United Nations primarily because the Soviet Union walked out of the Security Council session when the vote was cast.
In the case of Somalia, the five permanent members of the Security Council _ the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China _ have found common ground on conditions in which the world body approves the use of force.
Compared to the quagmire in the former Yugoslavia, for example, Somalia is a relatively straightforward peacekeeping operation. If the United Nations is unable to accomplish its goals there, its ability to intervene in other crises would appear even more problematic.
To retain its credibility and to prevent Somali warlords from breaking the agreement on disarming, the United Nations had to respond to the June 5 street battles in Mogadishu that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
Aidid, the most powerful warlord in the capital, has been widely blamed for orchestrating the violence. Several analysts said he had to be both punished and neutralized if the U.N. mission hopes to be effective in achieving its twin objectives of famine relief and national reconstruction.
At the same time, however, U.N. troops must avoid being drawn into the conflict as partisans or otherwise forfeiting their standing as neutral peacekeepers in a way that would endanger the entire operation, and potentially others elsewhere in the future.
The dangers are often equated with the deployment of U.S. Marines in Beirut from 1982 to 1984, when American peacekeepers were sucked into Lebanon's civil war on behalf of a Christian militia. Having lost their neutrality, the Marines increasingly became targets. Within five months, they were forced to abandon Beirut. The U.S. mission to reconstruct Lebanon collapsed.
Although few analysts are predicting anything like that worst-case scenario for Somalia, many are concerned that the confrontation may not have eliminated the problem. Somali animosity toward the United Nations ran deep long before the strike, they note.
"Many Somalis feel that the United Nations is now imposing itself on Somalia, that it is effectively an occupying force," said Sharon Pauling, an Africa policy analyst with Bread for the World, a relief group involved in aid to Somalia. "Increasing numbers feel their views are not being considered when it comes to what national reconstruction should look like or where U.N. troops should be deployed. Basically, they're feeling excluded."