Patterns of Force


The day after the Justice Department released its report on the federal government's deadly confrontation with Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, President Clinton announced that he was doubling the number of U.S. troops in Somalia. The timing was probably coincidental, but the juxtaposition of the two events suggests some interesting parallels.

The fiascos in Waco and Somalia show how the government's use of force tends to spin out of control, acquiring a momentum of its own. This is one more reason to be skeptical about proposals for military and quasi-military operations. It's a point worth keeping in mind as the Clinton administration considers sending troops to Haiti and Bosnia. Even when the policy is clearly mistaken, even when it can plausibly be blamed on people who have since left office, politicians rarely have the guts to admit the error and cut their losses. Failing to do so, they end up with blood on their hands.

Though endorsed by President-elect Clinton, the operation in Somalia was initiated by a lame-duck Bush administration. No one pretended it had anything to do with U.S. security. The images of starving children on CNN were deemed a sufficient argument for intervention. U.S. troops were supposed to go in, protect relief efforts until the threat of mass starvation receded, and get out by Inauguration Day. The supporters of intervention did not pause to reflect on the question of what would happen after American forces left.

Now the answer is painfully clear: The country will revert to civil war, anarchy, and famine. The U.S./U.N. mission has apparently become somehow to prevent that outcome. Despite this seemingly open-ended commitment, Clinton promises to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of March. Even if he does, more Americans and soldiers from other countries are likely to die trying to restore order and create a stable government where none exists.

It need not have been this way. Long before October, Clinton could have said that the Somalia operation had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the costs had become too high and the benefits too uncertain. Then he could have withdrawn our troops as expeditiously as possible, thereby avoiding the deaths of 25 American soldiers. Instead, he has escalated U.S. involvement, arguing that the United States would look bad if it pulled out before its mission was accomplished. The operation's failure means it must continue.

Similarly, Attorney General Janet Reno never seriously considered pulling back from Mount Carmel or letting up the pressure on the Davidians. Even though the investigation that led to the initial BATF raid started under the Bush administration and the siege began before she took office, Reno did not question the government's approach. Like Clinton, she escalated.

The chain of events that culminated in the incineration of more than 80 men, women, and children last April began with a suspicion that someone in the Davidian compound might have illegally converted semi-automatic guns to fully automatic. Whatever the truth of the charges, there's no question that the BATF's raid was unnecessary, disproportionate, and reckless. The Treasury Department's report, issued in late September, confirms as much.

But once the Davidians defended themselves against this armed assault, the original weapons charges were forgotten. The four dead BATF agents became the excuse for a brutal, seven-week siege. The FBI cut off phone service, sewer lines, electricity, and water; it demolished cars and crushed bicycles; it flooded the compound with light at all hours and blared music, monk chants, and rabbit squeals at the people inside.

These tactics were supposed to encourage the Davidians to give up. But the Justice Department report reveals that FBI agents at the scene were actually working at cross purposes with negotiators trying to arrange a peaceful surrender. A more plausible explanation for the harassment is simple revenge.

Seeing all this, Reno concluded that the FBI knew what it was doing. When she sent the tanks in to knock down the walls of the compound and pump in tear gas, she said she did it for the children, the same rationale that had seemed to work for the intervention in Somalia. The Justice Department report shows this was a lie: The FBI had no evidence that children in the compound were being abused.

We may never know whether the government or the Davidians set the fire, whether it was started deliberately or by accident. But if you were trying to drive a paranoid, Messianic sect to mass suicide, you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better plan than the one the FBI executed. All this was apparent to any sensible observer, but we are supposed to believe that Reno could not reasonably have foreseen the outcome, or that her willingness to accept responsibility should immunize her from blame.

Both Reno and Clinton inherited messes from their predecessors. But they were not powerless to head off disaster. They simply did not have the courage to risk the charge of cowardice.