REPORTS that Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia are bad enough; the idea that Ethiopia may have done so at America's behest, if true, is even worse.
For the past few months Somalia has been the usual cauldron of competing militias that everyone has come to hate and deplore since government collapsed there in 1991.
One main contestant was the warlords, organized as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism and apparently supported by the United States.
A second force was the Council of Islamic Courts, again an ill-defined organization that the United States claims - on feeble to nonexistent intelligence - cooperates with terrorist bodies.
The third was the Federal Government of Transition, cobbled together in Kenya over a two-year period. Once constituted, it was too fearful even to go to Mogadishu, the capital, installing itself instead in Baidoa, a considerable distance away.
In early June, the kaleidoscope achieved clearer resolution. The Courts gunmen defeated the Peace and Counter-Terrorism gunmen, taking the capital. Talks were then bruited between the Courts Council and the Transition Government in Baidoa.
When the Courts group realized it could probably eliminate the Baidoa group's challenge to its pre-eminence and began to move up on them militarily, the Ethiopians sent troops across the border, in principle to protect the transitional Somalia government.
The right word for what Ethiopia did is "invasion." Then comes the question of motivation. Apart from the fact that the two countries have been fighting off and on since 1977, there is the question of religion. Somalia is nearly 100 percent Muslim. Ethiopia, in defending its invasion, has called itself Christian, even though 60 percent to 65 percent of Ethiopians aren't Christians.
The worrisome part for Americans is that the Bush Administration, still smarting from the defeat in June of the warlords militia it was supporting and attracted by Ethiopia's hollow claim to be Christian, may have suggested to the Ethiopians that they intervene to prevent the Islamic Courts group from taking over all of Somalia.
The problem is that the Islamic Courts may just attack the Ethiopians, and may even defeat them, driving them back across the border.
Whatever happens, there is no advantage to the United States in an Ethiopia-Somalia war in the Horn of Africa. What would be more sensible would be for the United States to take up the Courts group's offer of talks and establish working relations with it.
It is, in fact, on top in Somalia now and may be in a position to re-establish the national government that has been missing from that country for 15 years. That would be something to hope for.