U.S. leadership at risk in Bosnian peacekeeping

October 22, 1997|By Henry L. Trewhitt

IT'S UNCLEAR whether the administration deliberately put its entire foreign policy at risk in Bosnia. Perhaps it had no choice.

But the prospect today is that if American troops are withdrawn next June, when their mandate expires, the dominoes will begin to tumble in Europe and teeter elsewhere. Such is the price of status as the world's surviving superpower.

Begin with the basics. Some 35,000 troops from 36 countries, including the bitterest former enemies from the Cold War, are in Bosnia to maintain stability among snarling Croat, Serb and Muslim factions in a big portion of the former Yugoslavia.

The idea is that negotiations will produce a single Bosnian state with shared power, a proposition that inspires more cynicism than hope. Developed no further, the scenario already takes on a Kafkaesque quality.

Americans are the glue holding the stabilization force (SFOR) together. The European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had an opportunity to keep the European house in order when ethnic factions to their south began slaughtering each other. They flunked.

U.S. capability

Only the Americans could organize the community action that at least suspended the bloodletting.

In a sense, the opportunity was useful to Washington. The United States could not afford to be excluded as its allies lunged toward political and economic cooperation and who-knew-what-else in the post-Cold War period.

An obvious vehicle for maintaining influence was to retain NATO, the alliance that had prevailed against the late Soviet empire.

An obvious and far more debatable mission for NATO was expansion to absorb part of that empire. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have now been invited to join.

The ethnic butchery among former Yugoslavs was an occasion, certainly not a welcome one, to test the new role of NATO and the possibilities for cooperation with the new democratic Russia.

Now come the consequences of these decisions. Defenders of current policy insist that progress in being made in Bosnia, though admittedly it's slow. Yet only a resolute optimist can see any hope that the plan for shared power will lead ultimately to peace.

And all outsiders agree that withdrawal now would lead to renewed slaughter. That leaves NATO leaders wrestling with how much can be accomplished before defense ministers met again in December.

Already they have agreed that the stabilization force must remain in place after June. But Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, while agreeing in principle, cannot make a commitment. Congress is waiting to act on both NATO expansion and on the role in Bosnia.

The administration will try to make the decisions as palatable as possible.

Reduce corruption

Gen. Wesley Clark, the American who commands NATO, aims to reduce the smuggling and corruption that finance the ethnic conflict and to disarm at least some of the rogue militias before the end of the year.

The goals are understandable, but appear largely unrealistic. If they include arrest of the murderers facing international arrest warrants, most of whom are preening openly, someone is going to be hurt.

The death of Americans in the police action would increase pressure in Congress to shut down the whole enterprise. The administration's opponents are not merely cynics seeking political advantage, but also those who fret that policy more broadly is unclear and the public is unprepared for the risks.

Yet the consequences of American withdrawal would be at best severe and perhaps catastrophic. If the Americans leave, so will the Europeans.

Defense Minister Volker Ruhe of Germany made that clear to a reporter recently. "We went in together and we will come out together," he said.

"We learned our lessons during the Bosnian war that the only way to maintain NATO unity is by sharing risks on the ground."

Which means that the Croats, Serbs and Muslims would resume the carnage and the outsiders would have to decide under pressure about intervening again, with unpredictable results.

But the more significant consequences for the United States, all human considerations aside, would be for overall foreign policy.

NATO expansion, which is widely and wrongly assumed to be a done deal, would face a far more doubtful future in Congress.

The debate about expansion is not altogether partisan. Probably the policy question of whether it would have been better first to work out relations with Russia in more detail is settled.

The political penalty for turning back now would be enormous. But many legitimate questions remain to be settled about the costs of expansion and who will pay them.

Greatest cost

Yet the greatest cost of failure in Bosnia is almost philosophical. If the United States again, the surviving superpower, cannot fulfill its mission in a civil conflict of irregular forces, then where can its leadership be trusted?

That question would drift among governments around the world with varying results. Not all of the answers would be apparent, but many of them, in various guises, would be substantial. And most of them would be unpleasant.

Henry L. Trewhitt, a former diplomatic reporter for The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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