- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

“These efforts, in turn, will help to create a secure environment, so that the people of Bosnia can return to their homes, vote in free elections, and begin to rebuild their lives. Our Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that this mission should and will take about one year.” — President Clinton, Nov. 27, 1995, announcing the deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia.

The Clinton administration has a new definition of reckless haste: doing in the next four years what it promised to finish doing four years ago. Recently, George W. Bush's chief national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the United States should no longer take part in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and that as president, he would work out “a new division of labor” with our NATO allies. Administration officials immediately reacted as if Bush had proposed replacing the USS Eisenhower with a birch-bark canoe.

This proposal, said Vice President Gore, “demonstrates a lack of judgment and a complete misunderstanding of history,” not to mention that it could “lead to the collapse of NATO and eventually threaten the peace of Europe.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insisted that merely raising the subject was dangerous.

But what's so radical about the position taken by Rice and her boss? When Clinton sent those troops to Bosnia, Americans were assured that their presence would not be required on a permanent basis. One Pentagon official went so far as to say, “We're giving the Bosnians the best shot they're going to get. Let's hope they don't blow it, because on Day 365, we're outta here.”

Today, though, Gore and Albright think it borders on treason to suggest that our commitment should be anything less than eternal. So we should assume that President Gore would convert what was originally a one-year project into one lasting at least nine years, and possibly 13.

Is that really necessary? NATO currently has 65,000 troops in the Balkans, of which only 11,400 are from the United States. If peacekeepers can perform an expanded mission with half as many American soldiers as they had in 1996, why can't they do it with no Americans at all? The countries of Western Europe, which have more people and nearly as many economic resources as we do, can afford to take over the task.

The United States, of course, could also afford to shoulder the burden permanently. But we have other responsibilities that demand priority. Bush believes U.S. power should be conserved for the places where it is indispensable — notably the Persian Gulf, the Korean peninsula and the Pacific Rim — rather than lavished on every hot spot that shows up on CNN. Otherwise, we may find ourselves stretched too thin to defend against the big threats that no one else can put down.

“Extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kinds of global missions,” Rice told The New York Times. “Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

American power is properly, and traditionally, used to protect crucial national interests — none of which is at risk in the Balkans. A nation identifies its vital interests by indicating what it is willing to sacrifice large numbers of its soldiers to preserve. If it is not willing to send men and women to die for a cause, then the purpose is not vital.

The Clinton administration has shown that it wouldn't go that far in the Balkans — which is why it refused to send ground troops during the Kosovo war, and why it conducted the air war against Yugoslavia in such a way that not a single American life was lost in combat. The importance we place on the Persian Gulf and South Korea is evident from the fact that we have fought large-scale wars in those places and are prepared to do so again. Our NATO allies don't question the importance of these missions, but with the exception of Britain, they don't feel any duty to expend their own blood and treasure on them.

So why is the United States, which did most of the heavy lifting in the war over Kosovo, also obligated to establish and maintain order in the Balkans once the fighting has stopped? Our allies have the means to handle that job. If we were to withdraw, they would either decide it was important enough to do themselves or decide that it was not. In either case, appropriate action would follow. An era of peace and general tranquility is probably not the time for Bush or any other presidential candidate to engage the American public on foreign policy issues. But there are worse campaign slogans than, “He'll bring our troops home from Bosnia.”

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