General Joseph Ralston, the supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is resisting pressure from his predecessor to give the alliance a more active role in countering insurgents in Macedonia. Ralston addressed that and other timely issues on Wednesday in testimony before a U.S. congressional committee in Washington.
Washington, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is resisting mounting pressure that the alliance be more aggressive to counter the insurgency in Macedonia.
General Joseph Ralston made the stand in testimony Wednesday before the defense subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. In that appearance, the supreme allied commander in Europe also addressed a wide range of other issues relating to the Balkans and East-West affairs.
One senator on the committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-California), cited an opinion article by Ralston's predecessor -- retired General Wesley Clark, who organized NATO's air war against Yugoslavia in 1999. Clark wrote that NATO and the U.S. should quickly take a more active role in working with the government in Skopje to stop the movement of weapons and rebels from Kosovo into Macedonia.
Ralston replied that NATO already is working on the Kosovo side of the border to prevent arms smuggling. But he said he has personally surveyed the Kosovo-Macedonia border and found that it is so mountainous and wooded that it is impossible to close altogether.
"The idea that anyone can seal that border is fantasy. That cannot be. But we are actively patrolling the border. We are capturing, every day, arms and smugglers that go across that border. But I'm not going to tell you that it's 100 percent [closed]."
But he emphasized that a NATO combat role in Macedonia is not called for. He said there is no mandate from the alliance to do so, nor has the government in Skopje requested help. Until that changes, Ralston said, NATO should limit itself to providing Macedonia with only advice, equipment, and intelligence to help it deal with the rebels.
The NATO commander also was asked if NATO should take it upon itself to arrest Yugoslavs who have been formally indicted on war-crimes charges by the international tribunal at The Hague. He was reminded that Belgrade has been given until March 31 to institute several reforms and to arrest suspected war criminals like former President Slobodan Milosevic. Otherwise, Yugoslavia will forfeit millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Ralston said NATO has been aggressive in hunting down suspected war crimes suspects in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it has a right to do so as part of its peacekeeping mission. He also said he supports the idea of holding Belgrade to the March 31 deadline for reforms. But he added:
"If you are asking me: Should NATO go into Serbia to arrest Milosevic or [Ratko] Mladic or [Radovan] Karadzic, that is beyond the mission that NATO has been given. I mean, that is a police mission. This is the responsibility of the individual nation to turn the people that have been indicted for war crimes over to the international tribunal."
He said he believes that diplomatic and economic pressure -- not military action -- is more appropriate for persuading Belgrade to give up suspected war criminals living in Serbia.
Ralston also was asked about U.S. troop levels in Europe. He replied that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who has been in office for only two months -- is still evaluating troop strength. But the NATO commander said that in his opinion, the American contingent cannot be reduced unless the demands on it are reduced as well.
"I don't believe that I can ask the troops that are there to continue to do that level of engagement if I had fewer forces. We would have to cut back on that level of engagement."
Another member of the committee, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), asked Ralston how he felt that some members of Congress believe that the European Union should develop its own defense force and get out of NATO altogether.
The general replied that American officials in NATO have encouraged their European allies to do more in their own defense. But he added that this increased military contribution need not be at the expense of the alliance.
Ralston also was asked about some European opposition to plans of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to build a national missile defense, or NMD. The NATO commander said some European allies believe the defense shield would generate a new arms race between Washington and Moscow like the one that defined much of the latter half of the 20th century.
The general said he has tried to allay such fears, and make European leaders understand that the NMD is a limited defensive shield, designed only to protect the country from rogue states like Libya or North Korea. He said the shield is not meant to prevent a deliberate attack by Russia or China. Therefore, he said, it is not likely to encourage either of those countries to increase their offensive missile arsenals.