AMERICA IS right, in Kosovo and elsewhere, to support considered humanitarian interventions: In the age of television, this country cannot easily shrug off humanitarian outrage, even if it mistakenly wants to do so. At the same time, America cannot intervene everywhere: It was left to Australia to lead on East Timor, and a Nigerian-led force has taken on successive crises in West Africa. Sometimes, of course, Americans will feel frustrated at the shortcomings of these third-party interventions. But given that America cannot police the world single-handedly, the right response to that frustration is to give third-party efforts a better chance to work.
This may sound obvious, but it is apparently mysterious to many congressional Republicans. Their foreign aid bill, which President Clinton vetoed yesterday, contained only $78 million of the $130 million that the administration wanted for peacekeeping. It offered only $2.2 billion, as against the requested $2.5 billion, for the general economic support fund out of which some peacekeeping costs are paid. Meanwhile more peacekeeping money is locked up in a separate appropriations bill covering the State Department. The administration has asked for $485 million; Congress earlier offered less than half of that, but is now wondering whether to approve more.
The vetoed foreign operations bill also included other false economies. It axed aid money that was meant to underpin the Wye River peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. It cut money for African debt relief and for a program to find work for former Soviet weapons scientists who might otherwise sell their services to rogues. The only comforting thing about the bill came in the flimsiness of the Republican explanation for its meanness. Dennis Hastert, the House speaker, declared -- no kidding -- that "Congress will not use Social Security as a pot of gold to fund foreign aid," confirming that retiree entitlements now rival children as the favorite cause of politicians who lack good arguments.
On Monday, as the president cast his veto, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Sierra Leone, where thousands of civilians have had limbs hacked off by rebels and where nearly half the population of 4.5 million has been driven from home. Sierra Leone clearly merits humanitarian attention, and yet its strategic insignificance makes a full-blown American intervention all but unthinkable. It is, therefore, precisely the sort of case that America would like to leave to others; and others, first in the form of a Nigerian-led force and soon in the form of a United Nations one, have tried to respond to the challenge. America should support those efforts warmly. But Congress's selective indifference to peacekeeping is matched only by its record in blocking payment of United Nations dues.