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US Thinking on Bosnia Unnerves Europeans

President Bush may have retreated on his pledge to withdraw troops from Bosnia, but Europe remains concerned about his commitment to the region.
By Tanya Domi

US Secretary of State Colin Powell's inaugural visit to Europe to consult allies on Balkans' policy was hardly mentioned in the American media, despite the fact that it came as new violence and tension spread across the region.


The trip, starkly overshadowed by the China crisis, merited just a handful of reports in the major newspapers and television news bulletins.


The Balkans conflict seems a distant memory to most Americans these days, but the Europeans continue to grapple with the troubled region.


Alarm bells sounded in Europe last fall when Bush representatives said that if he were elected president he would pull US troops out of the area. A Deputy Joint Chiefs of Staff adviser Brig. Gen. Keith Dayton suggested this remained the new administration's position in a seminar at Columbia University in New York City, in late February.


Powell has since calmed European nerves by insisting that Washington continues to be engaged in the region. On two occasions during the last two months, initially at NATO headquarters in late February and recently in his first meeting with the Contact Group in Paris a couple of weeks ago, Powell said America was keeping its commitment to NATO and would maintain its troops in both Bosnia and Kosovo.


The secretary of state made his first visit to Sarajevo two weeks ago, issuing stern words of warning to supporters of the secessionist Bosnian Croats affiliated to the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.


HDZ hardliners attacked NATO-led peacekeepers and Western officials on April 6 in Mostar when they tried to take control of Hercegovacka Bank - which is believed to be bankrolling the illegal activities of the so-called Croat National Assembly.


The Bush team has clearly retreated on its campaign rhetoric to withdraw US forces from the Balkans, despite concerted pressure from the Republican-led Congress to "bring home America's boys".


Brookings Institute defence analyst Michael O'Hanlon told IWPR that Powell clearly understands that a continued presence in the Balkans is a fundamental aspect of America's responsibility in trans-Atlantic security matters.


"Pulling all of its troops out of the region would fly in the face of the lessons learned from


the consequences of America's delayed participation in the two world wars and in the Bosnian war of 1992-95," O'Hanlon wrote in a recently published article in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2001).


O'Hanlon believes the US could afford to scale back its troop deployment in Bosnia, but insists that further withdrawals from the region would have to be carefully calculated. "We are not leaving Kosovo," he underlined in the interview.


In part influenced by a sense that US commitment to the Balkans may wane over time, Europe has over the last few years sought to develop its own security initiative, the Common European


Security and Defense Policy, ESDP, led by Javier Solana, the former NATO secretary general.


Ironically, the same Republican Congress which wants to bring "America's boys"


back home has criticised the European plan - envisaging a 60,000 troop rapid response force - which, in time, could allow the US to scale back its Balkans commitment.


In January, a letter written by Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and signed by other Republican senators, argued the new European initiative was a threat to NATO.


However, others in the US, notably the Centre for Defence Information in Washington, have welcomed the ESDP as a "coming of age" and an opportunity to boost European NATO members' military capabilities.


For many Europeans, the US position on ESDP was best encapsulated in March 2000 by Lord George Robertson, the NATO Secretary General, as "a sort of schizophrenia".


"On the one hand, the Americans say 'You Europeans have got to carry more of the burden,' " he said. "And then when Europeans say 'Okay, we will carry more of the burden,' the Americans say, ' Well, wait a minute, are you trying to tell us to go home?'"


It is against this complex backdrop that Powell visited European allies to discuss Balkan policy and a renewed effort by Contact Group countries to coordinate allied efforts in the region.


As Europe watches the Bush administration unfold, it's finding it increasingly hard to second-guess its foreign policy initiatives. For now Powell provides a reassuring presence, but for how long?


Tanya Domi is the former OSCE spokesperson in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is now taking an advanced degree in Human Rights at Columbia University in New York


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