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Bush Questions US Balkan Role

The Bush administration risks falling out with its NATO allies if it reduces its commitment to Balkan peacekeeping
By IWPR

With George W Bush in the White House, the US presence in South-Eastern Europe might well be slimmed down. At least, that is the view of some of his foreign policy experts. But like his predecessor, Bush may find that the Balkans does not allow for quick solutions or easy exits.


Eight years ago, when Bush's father left the White House, former Yugoslavia was going up in flames. Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav army was cutting a swathe of destruction across Bosnia-Herzegovina, European governments were accusing the US of shirking her NATO alliance obligations and there were fears that the conflict could trigger a wider Balkan war.


While the Balkans remain politically unstable, the fighting has stopped and those who plunged the country into war are no longer in power. Many of Bush's advisers now regard peacekeeping as a nuisance and a distraction from defending "national interests".


Condoleeza Rice, the National Security Adviser-designate, caused consternation in the NATO alliance in October when she spoke about pulling US troops out of the region to create a "new division of labour" with America's European allies.


Rice and other Bush advisers have since played down her remarks and promised to consult with NATO allies before taking any action as to the future of the 10,000-strong US force in Bosnia and Kosovo.


Despite these reassurances, however, there is clearly a desire among Bush's team to review the American presence in the Balkans.


Many senior officers in the Pentagon see peacekeeping as housekeeping duty. They believe US military resources should be devoted exclusively for fighting real wars.


At present, it is unclear whether the new administration favours a careful scaling back of the US role in the Balkans or a rapid withdrawal.


Colin Powell, tipped to serve as Secretary of State, is for the former option.


Opposed to military intervention in Bosnia as head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell is famous for his caution when it comes to wielding America's big stick.


But although he may disagree with Washington's obligations in the Balkans, he is also a veteran of the Cold War era and he would loathe to disrupt relations between NATO members.


An official who attended the outgoing administration's security briefing for Powell told IWPR that he spoke about the need for consistency and continuity in US policy but said he favoured some flexibility in American commitments abroad.


"These people (Bush's advisers) are fairly reasonable people," the official said. "While they may like to do it (withdraw from the Balkans), reality makes it less likely."


"Something has got to give," said John Hulsman, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank and a critic of the Clinton administration's policies in the Balkans. "Rice has stated that nation-building simply doesn't work. Look at Bosnia, where the goal has been to create a multi-ethnic nation - the Bosnians continue to re-elect the party that was led by (indicted war criminal Radovan) Karadzic."


Hulsman and many other Republican foreign policy experts are sympathetic to the Pentagon's reservations about peacekeeping commitments in Kosovo and Bosnia, which they refer to as a case of "imperial overstretch".


According to Hulsman, the Bush administration may push to remove American ground troops while retaining minimal logistical support. "We may shift our presence in the Balkans to airlift, logistics, C41 (command, control, communications, intelligence). But we will be engaged there for some time to come."


But opposition from NATO allies to US ground troop withdrawal might well be expected after Washington's outspoken views on the future expansion of the alliance and the shape of a possible European rapid reaction force. In reaction, EU states would demand a greater leadership role in the alliance.


Rice and other Bush advisers are strong supporters of US NATO leadership but it will be difficult for the new administration to persuade European allies that it retain the role while refusing to support NATO's military missions on the ground.


If the Bush team insists on pulling out of the peacekeeping missions too quickly, trans-Atlantic relations could turn nasty and the argument for an independent European defence force - promoted vigorously by the French - could gain weight. US influence in Europe would decline and bickering among NATO allies could create a dangerous vacuum.


Whatever the extent of the American peacekeeping commitment, the new administration will be putting a much lower priority on the Balkans.


Outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, herself a refugee who fled the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, took a keen personal interest in opposing nationalist pogroms in former Yugoslavia and saw events in Bosnia and Kosovo as a test of American resolve.


But Powell, Rice, and the Secretary of Defence nominee Donald Rumsfeld all served in government during the Cold War and are deeply uncomfortable with the Clinton administration's broad definition of national interest.


Rice has indicated that, under her leadership, she intends to reduce the size of the National Security Council staff and possibly merge offices dealing with the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and the European Union, an official in the NSC told IWPR.


The most visible effect of the new management at the White House will be a substantial reduction in the flow of US reconstruction aid to the region. Funding was already being reduced but a Republican White House and Congress will take a particularly sceptical attitude towards Balkan aid programmes.


There will be far fewer American civil servants in the region, and Washington-sponsored initiatives like the US Agency for International Development could play a much less decisive role in shaping economic reforms in the region.


New ambassadors appointed by the Bush administration will probably be less visible and voluble. As a result, the international community's High Representative in Bosnia may have more room to manoeuvre and will look increasingly to European Union states for support.


For Clinton, and supporters of his Balkans policy in America and Europe, the Bush team's eagerness to steer away from the region will come as a bitter disappointment. With Milosevic out of power and moderate parties in the ascendant, they argue that continued US leadership is needed to consolidate the gains made so far.


The Clinton administration greeted the fall of Milosevic as a vindication of its decision to assume a leading role in the region. But the strong hand advocated by Clinton's team followed three years of painful debates and hand-wringing within the NATO alliance and the White House.


It was not until the summer of 1995 that Clinton decided that it was easier to intervene militarily to end the Bosnian war than to send in American troops for a messy evacuation of European peacekeepers. Adopting a "robust" approach was more about preserving the NATO alliance than preventing human rights abuses.


President-elect Bush may find that it is easier to accept awkward peacekeeping duties than to risk an unseemly quarrel with NATO allies.


Tanya Domi served as a spokeswoman for the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She is pursuing a graduate degree in Human Rights at Columbia University in New York. Dan De Luce worked for Reuters and the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia. He is a contributing editor at IWPR.


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