Washington, 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - A suggestion by U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger that NATO forces should stay in Bosnia until the goals of the Dayton Accords are realized has provoked criticism that the West lacks an "exit strategy" for that conflict.
On Tuesday, Berger told a Georgetown University audience that NATO-led forces in Bosnia, including their American contingent, may have to remain there longer than planned in order to give the Dayton Accords time to work.
That 1995 agreement sought to bring peace to that war-torn country by redefining Bosnia as a federation in which all three ethnic communities -- the Serbs, Croats and Muslims -- share power.
Neither the agreement -- which Berger himself conceded is far from perfect -- nor the presence of NATO-led forces has achieved their goal, but together they have largely ended the mass violence and ethnic cleansing that had characterized Bosnia prior to the Dayton agreement.
Even more, the accords and the troops backing them up have bought time for less extreme leaders to challenge the power of more radical ones, such as Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic has done in reducing the power of Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted for war crimes.
Pulling out the troops anytime soon, Berger argued, would be wrong both because it is too soon to "give up on justice and reward aggression," and because it would send a message to "ethnic fanatics everywhere that the international community will allow redrawing of borders by force."
But for at least three reasons, numerous political figures, analysts and editorialists have attacked this latest indication that the pursuit of the goals of the Dayton Accords will require a significantly extended foreign military presence.
First, in response to domestic populations suspicious of any military commitment in the post-Cold War environment, U.S. President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders routinely have made promises to pull the troops out by a specific date. Consequently, each time these leaders are forced to put off the withdrawal, many in the West fear that their soldiers are being drawn into a quagmire.
Second, an increasing number of politicians and editorialists are now prepared to accept the partition of Bosnia, even though that would represent the defeat of the Dayton Accords and would probably resonate elsewhere around the world as Berger suggests.
And third, there is a widespread sense that the ethnic conflict in Bosnia is so deeply rooted that there is no possibility that the NATO-led forces will ever achieve their goals of a Bosnia whose borders are unchallenged and whose population lives in democratic peace.
Animated by all these feelings, an increasing number of political figures and commentators are now demanding to know why NATO and the United States have not developed an "exit strategy," a plan for withdrawal by a specific date.
But this shift in rhetoric from goals to exit strategy may entail some serious consequences that some participants in this debate do not appear to recognize.
On the one hand, shifting from a discussion of goals to one of exit inevitably devalues whatever goals are at stake and means that people involved in this debate will focus only on costs.
And on the other, shifting from the one point of view to the other also is likely to shift the locus of power on the ground in Bosnia. As long as the NATO-led forces are there and as long as none of the local participants know when they are going to leave, local leaders are likely to take the Dayton Accords into account whenever they take action.
But as soon as the local combatants know that the outside forces will be leaving, then they are far more likely to harass those forces and to plan for a resumption of hostilities.
Consequently, while the debate about the presence of NATO-led forces in Bosnia is both necessary and useful, this particular rhetorical shift almost certainly undermines both the prospects for peace in that region and the principles behind the goals of the Dayton accords.