Peacekeepers' Expanded Role

U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in conflicts as recent as the one in Bosnia and as old as the situation in the Middle East, where U.N. troops have been on the ground since 1948.

"Many of these ethnic rivalries which were previously suppressed by the Cold War were able to erupt anew," says former Congressman Stephen Solarz.

Solarz is now an analyst of American foreign policy. He believes that U.N. peacekeeping forces backed by American military force is a modern necessity despite its mixed track record.

"I think it was successful for example, for making possible an end to the fighting in Cambodia, in the early 1990's," says Solarz. "It was also successful in bringing an end to the civil war in El Salvador, but it clearly was a failure in Bosnia."

One failure, still fresh in American minds, was the debacle in Somalia. In 1993 lightly armed street fighters managed to down an American Blackhawk helicopter, killing 18 army Rangers. Since then the U.S. has been much more cautious about the peace missions it adopts, reports CBS News Correspondent Scott Pelley.

"When the Americans were killed in Mogadishu, the political support in Congress collapsed over time, though the need for peacekeeping didn't go away," said Fred Eckhard, who works with the United Nations.

"That fear led the United Nations and the U.S. to ignore the genocide in Rwanda a year later. Lack of commitment cost 800, 000 lives, he said.

"This is a bit like what we saw in Rwanda in 1994; very often kids running wild through the streets, with machetes in their hands. A well trained military unit can probably cope pretty effectively with them," predicts Eckhard.

America's contribution to the force in East Timor, as it has been in most recent missions, will likely be communications and transportation support. A contribution that may be less than what the U.N. wants, but enough to restore peace.

"The reputation of the United Nations is at stake here. If this fails, no one will ever take U.N. peacekeeping seriously again," said Solarz.

The United States ranks eighth in financial support for the U.N. peacekeeping forcees, behind Poland and Bangladesh.