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One must follow rules for successful peacemaking

Call it Democratic Man's Burden. He (or she) watches TV news. He sees a child starving in Somalia, eviscerated in Sarajevo or maimed in Sierra Leone. He feels morally affronted, angry and a little guilty. He demands, "Something be done."

So it begins _ the peacekeeping imperative.

These days, politicians dare not proclaim, as Secretary of State James A. Baker famously did at the beginning of the Bosnian war, "We don't have a dog in that fight."

From Haiti to East Timor, Angola to Iraq, the Western democracies have claimed a stake in almost every fight, especially those that produce television pictures of pitiless tyrants harming innocents. It can evoke the do-good oratory of Kipling's day, if not the greed his condescending words served.

What anti-communism was to the cold war, in fact, conscience is to a world of endless small wars. The 38 United Nations peacekeeping missions launched since 1988 amount to more than twice the number in the preceding 40 years.

In the last three weeks, conscience has again collided head-on with the unconscionable behavior of men with guns. Thugs in Sierra Leone who smuggle diamonds, maim civilians and call themselves revolutionaries detained United Nations peacekeepers and stole their weapons. Second-guessers have been quick to complain of the folly of United Nations forces wandering into a faraway land where there is no peace to keep.

The Sierra Leone embarrassment, however, should be understood not as an indictment of conscience-driven peacekeeping _ but of peacekeeping done badly. The mess in West Africa, partially cleaned up on Wednesday by the capture of rebel leader Foday Sankoh, is a reminder that trying to do good is not so much futile as exceptionally complicated. Succeeding is a product of shrewd planning, not wishful thinking.

As easy as it may be to ridicule the idea of do-good foreign policy, the record suggests that the United Nations and the Western powers have become rather good at it. With so much recent practice and with several failures to learn from, they have developed a set of rules for how to keep and make peace.

If the rules are followed, peacekeeping tends to work. A list of recent successes _ as measured by a cessation of fighting and progress in building democracy _ includes Mozambique, Namibia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Croatia and Macedonia. If success is measured by a significant decline in violence and rights abuses, the list also includes Bosnia and Kosovo.

Even in Sierra Leone, where experts agree that virtually everything has gone wrong, there were attempts by the United Nations to borrow practices that had worked well elsewhere. There were plans in the peace agreement signed last July to bring together the warring factions with leaders of civil society. There was a plan to pay rebels to put down their weapons and engage in politics. It worked like a charm in Mozambique in 1992-94.

It did not work in Sierra Leone because a principal party to the eight-year civil war that supposedly ended last year never disarmed, never relinquished territory and never gave up the diamond smuggling that provided it with motive and means to wage more war. The Revolutionary United Front and its leader, Foday Sankoh, cynically used the peace agreement to escape legal responsibility for war crimes that included hacking off the limbs of thousands of civilians.

The rules of modern peacekeeping, however, contain clear instructions about how to handle bad actors like Sankoh.

"If your peacemaking formula is based on trying to co-opt a very irresponsible person who has shown himself to be unreliable, then you should compensate for that by using a robust military presence," said Naomi Weinberger, director of United Nations studies at Columbia University. In other words, peacekeepers should arrive in sufficient numbers and with sufficient firepower to pulverize a bad actor and his supporting cast, if need be.

The most important rule of modern peacekeeping is don't bluff. If peacekeepers lack the muscle to do the job, they should stay home. And the risk of casualties must be accepted, although it declines as a force's size and firepower increase.

This rule has worked in Bosnia, where an armed-to-the-teeth NATO force has had few problems with Serb paramilitaries who had previously delighted in humiliating, kidnapping and murdering lightly armed and ambiguously authorized United Nations and European Community peacekeepers.

"The reason NATO forces were so successful is that no one in his right mind would challenge them," said Michael W. Doyle, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. "The rule we have learned is that the more men and arms you go in with, the less you need to use them. In a sense, an expensive force is cheap."

The United Nations, though, with its chronic budget problems and fragmented leadership, is poorly positioned to follow the more-is-better rule. Unless it can persuade member countries to pay for a rapid deployment force, which seems unlikely, given the lack of interest shown by the United States, crises like Bosnia or Sierra Leone will remain beyond its capacity to make peace. That responsibility, by default, will continue to fall, in Europe, on regional alliances like NATO and, in Africa, on regional powers like Nigeria and South Africa.

The rules that the professors and the United Nations technocrats have all learned, written up and debated were blatantly ignored in Sierra Leone. The force was too small, too poorly armed and lacked the legal mandate needed to engage murderous rebels. Last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally talked about increasing the size of the peacekeeping force.

Why ignore what every good peacekeeping professional knows to be sound professional practice?

The answer is a mix of self-interest, stinginess and politics. Even when upset about the suffering of others, modern Westerners are not easily persuaded to spend large amounts of their own money or risk the lives of their sons.

It is worth remembering that in the former Yugoslavia good peacekeeping practices were implemented on a glacial time clock. For three agonizing years, until 1995, Americans were a tormented but paralyzed witness to Serb atrocities in Bosnia. Finally, Americans and their politicians mustered the will to send in the 60,000 troops that compelled peace.

In Africa, the bar for intervention that risks casualties has been set very much higher.

Part of the reason is the region's negligible economic and strategic significance. Another part is sour recent memory of good intentions gone bad, especially in Somalia in 1992.

The "lesson of Somalia" later hobbled the international community's response to genocide in Rwanda and it continues to resonate in Sierra Leone. There, between the options of committing overwhelming force and of doing nothing, the United States and other members of the United Nations Security Council chose what peacekeeping experts describe as a half-baked middle ground.

"They deployed an inadequate force as a politically palatable substitute for doing nothing," said Paul F. Diehl, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

When rebels in Sierra Leone called the bluff and humiliated the United Nations, they unwittingly helped write what is emerging as a new rule for peacemaking.

The Clinton administration decided that the local regional power, in this case Nigeria, whose troops managed to subdue Sankoh's rebels last year, should be paid to go back in and fight for peace. A similar approach was taken last year in East Timor, where Australia went in with enough men and firepower to quickly restore peace.

Embarrassed by its failure to follow the rules of good peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, the United Nations now seems likely to delay, if not scuttle, its plans to send another small, lightly armed peacekeeping force to Congo.

Sending such a force to Congo violates nearly every rule of successful peacekeeping, according to Professor Diehl. It is a huge country with hostile neighbors where several armies have access to diamonds and other minerals that give them a long-term motive to fight.

As regional wars grind on around the world, the burden of rich democracies to ease the suffering shows no sign of letting up.

So in countries like Sierra Leone, where peacekeeping demands a willingness to wage war, Democratic Man has three stark choices if he wants to salve his conscience: Fight, pay someone else to fight, or stay home and wait for an easier peace to keep.

Blaine Harden is a metro staff reporter for the New York Times