Decision to keep troops in Bosnia illustrates change in U.S. policy Deadline and exit strategy now not deemed essential


WASHINGTON -- On one level, President Clinton's decision to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia well past their one-year deadline is a blatant about-face.

Last year, when he was selling America on helping to enforce a peace settlement in the Balkans, Clinton promised that the troops would be home by the end of 1996. Last week, to almost nobody's surprise, he said that some GIs would be needed for 18 months more.

Yes, that's an about-face. But something else is going on, too.

The Bosnia decision shattered one pillar of recent military thinking: the need for a clear-cut exit strategy whenever U.S. troops are put in harm's way. And as if to show how easy it is now to commit U.S. troops abroad, Clinton announced at the same news conference that GIs would join a Canadian-led peacekeeping unit in Zaire.

What's more, there seems to be little public opposition. In the absence of U.S. casualties in Bosnia, the public no longer seems to be so intent on knowing just when its troops will return from overseas.

The premise that U.S. forces shouldn't be committed overseas without a clear idea of when they could be extracted was sanctified in the doctrine espoused by Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It held that the United States should intervene militarily only when its vital interests are threatened, only with overwhelming force, only when there is a clear goal and a defined exit strategy.

But the date when the troops come home is determined as much by politics as by the military situation, and both can change.

In its 1994 mission to feed refugees in Rwanda and in its mission to restore democracy to Haiti that year, the administration stuck to its schedules. But in Bosnia, it was easy to drop the idea that a timetable for leaving had to be obeyed, once it decided that the timetable no longer made sense.

In a convoluted explanation, Defense Secretary William J. Perry admitted that while America had achieved its military goals, this wasn't enough to claim victory and go home.

The Bosnia decision shows just how far the administration has moved toward the thinking advocated by Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, and by Gen. John Shalikashvili, Powell's successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The two top-level officials firmly believe that the Powell Doctrine is a Cold War relic, ill-suited to today's less rigid world system. For months, Albright has pushed for what she calls the "doability doctrine": that America should use its military power in flexible ways to achieve practical, if limited, goals.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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