- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

One testing ground for the Bush administration's defense priorities is the Balkans, which affects the security of one of the United States' most important relationships its partnership with Europe. NATO announced Tuesday that it will begin to withdraw from a strip of Serbia bordering Kosovo. Secretary of State Colin Powell was forced to walk a delicate line between reassuring NATO of its commitment to the alliance, while not promising that U.S. troops would stay. "We went in with you we will come out together," he promised. Well, which is it?

The U.S. peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia will cost $3.1 billion this year alone, and the 2001 budget for those missions falls $520 million short of what is needed. The White House has left open the possibility of asking Congress to approve funds to fill that gap. Legislators will need a significant signal from the administration that it still believes the U.S. presence is needed there to approve funding requests. Now the question the administration must ask itself is, if U.S. troops leave the Balkans, what will be the consequences?

One possible risk would be destabilization through escalated violence. Even though the United States at present only accounts for 13 percent of the peacekeepng troops in the Balkans, the United States commands far more respects from the hostile parties than any European force could. Though Slobodan Milosevic is no longer in power, a nationalist government friendly toward his cronies is. Ethnic violence has not been limited to ethnic Albanians. Though many have been allowed to return to Kosovo, most Serbs have been ethnically cleansed from their homes there. The violence in the last weeks has escalated. Montenegro, which wants to be its own independent state, will also have early elections April 22, and if the incumbent President Milo Djukanovic wins, his party hopes to have a referendum on independence by June. This would cause further escalation of tension between Serbia and Montenegro.

If our troops leave the Balkans, it may affect relations with Europe. While some EU member states have welcomed the opportunity to show the United States they do not need a superpower around, others have been concerned that the United States would be abandoning its commitment to NATO.

President Bush is committed to improving the state of the U.S. military, our partnership with Europe and leadership role in NATO. Whether that can best be done through supporting a European military force, or whether we need continued active involvement on the ground, now would be a good time to establish a firm policy for how the Bush administration in the Balkans.

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