When it comes to involving U.S. troops in military action, the U.S. Constitution should be followed - even in a place like Somalia.

When President George Bush first dispatched troops to Somalia last December, the aim was to fight mass starvation.But as feeding programs took hold, the emphasis switched to fighting violence and building political order out of anarchy.

Under the Constitution, there's a big difference between fighting starvation and fighting a foreign enemy. When U.S. soldiers find themselves in ongoing military skirmishes overseas (at least 23 Americans have been killed in Somalia so far), the Constitution clearly spells out that the president must get congressional approval.

The fact that in Somalia, American troops are cooperating with a larger U.N. force does not nullify the constitutional principle.

The House, therefore, was on solid ground this week when it overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on President Clinton to tell Congress his goals in Somalia. The resolution, identical to one approved earlier by the Senate, pressures Clinton to seek approval by Nov. 15 to keep troops in Somalia.

Although the administration is now saying that it hopes to bring 2,500 of the 4,700 American soldiers home "in a few months," that's not good enough. In fact, such statements bear an eerie resemblance to military assurances during the early years of the Vietnam War that "light is at the end of the tunnel."

What happens, for example, if warlord Mohamed Aidid begins to attack American soldiers? Recent actions indicate that many Somalis have grown hostile toward outside forces. Aidid's ability to elude capture is making him a hero.

As Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told the House, "We could end up with our people getting killed by the hundreds like sitting ducks."

To prevent such deadly foreign interventions was a key reason why the Founding Fathers, under Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, gave the warmaking power to Congress.

Abraham Lincoln observed that the Constitutional Convention didn't want presidents, like British kings, to have this power: "Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions."

"The executive government of this country in its intercourse with foreign nations," said James Buchanan, "is limited to the employment of diplomacy alone. When this fails, it can proceed no further. It cannot legitimately resort to force without the direct authority of Congress, except in resisting and repelling hostile attacks."

There's little disagreement about Aidid: He's a two-bit, tinhorn tyrant. And the fact that he remains at large is a thorn in the side of the United Nations as well as the U.S. military.

But the dangers of letting him get away cannot compare with the dangers of ignoring the Constitution.