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President Clinton debated U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week over when the international community should intervene in civil wars to halt mass slaughter.

They addressed the opening session of the General Assembly on different days. But they were really sniping at each other, about their divisions over what was or wasn't done to help the people of Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. Neither leader got to the heart of the matter.

Annan pushed for more and quicker humanitarian intervention in civil wars. He decried the outdated emphasis U.N. members still place on state sovereignty. Prime example: Security Council members insisted on waiting for Indonesia's permission before sending a peacekeeping mission to East Timor, by which time the Indonesian military had already sacked the island.

"Nothing in the (U.N.) Charter precludes a recognition that there are rights beyond borders," Annan argued. In his view, key U.N. members must not let countries use claims of national sovereignty to cover up flagrant abuses of human rights.

The real target of Annan's wrath is Security Council members who have thwarted human-rights interventions with their veto power. He is still bitter at the United States for blocking council action in 1994 to prevent genocidal killings in Rwanda.

Annan is also angry at NATO for circumventing the Security Council when NATO bombed Yugoslavia, because Russia would have vetoed any attack on the Serbs. If sovereignty is going to be violated in the name of human rights, Annan wants a Security Council consensus.

Is this realistic? Annan thinks so, contending that states must change the way they define their national interests. "A new, broader definition of national interest is needed in the new century," he wrote this week in The Economist, according to which states would unite on common goals that supersede national interests.

Then along came Clinton to address the world body. His stress -- in speaking about international efforts to stop outbreaks of mass killing -- was on national interests. In contrast to his early human-rights rhetoric on Bosnia, he admitted that "promising too much can be as cruel as caring too little."

NATO acted in Kosovo, he said, because "we had important interests at stake." For the same reason, Nigerian peacekeepers went to Sierra Leone and Australians and other Asians will go to East Timor. "We (the United States) cannot do everything everywhere."

Here we have the nub. Annan wants U.N. members to be better than they are, to rise above crass national interests in the interests of humanity. But if the last decade has proved anything, it is that national interests still trump visions of humanitarian rescues. Most U.N. members are unwilling to risk their soldiers for humanitarian causes where no pressing national interests are involved.

Neither Western parliaments nor publics have been convinced that such casualties are worth it. Governments contemplating such interventions never present the issue squarely to their publics.

In Somalia, President Bush sold U.S. participation as a purely humanitarian aid mission, but the Clinton team expanded it to nation-building among warring militias. The U.S. public was unprepared for the casualties that followed.

In Kosovo, we blundered into chaos; although we had interests in and moral responsibility for the outcome, NATO's goals were so murky that neither U.S. nor European public opinion supported a ground war. No Western leader has ever posed the question bluntly: Should our soldiers die to save African or Balkan civilians from slaughter by their own thuggish leaders? People might say yes in the abstract -- until the first casualties.

The debate should revolve around whether regional "coalitions of the willing" should act, under U.N. mandate if possible, when their interests are directly involved. Perhaps the issue of a U.N. rapid-reaction force, made up of well-trained units from smaller powers, will arise again. Then the debate might get real.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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