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Bosnia-Herzegovina: U.S. Military Role Under New Debate

  • Robert McMahon

Two influential foreign policy experts in the United States have clashed over the proper U.S. military role in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The comments at a panel discussion by former Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke and Richard Perle, the former Reagan administration assistant defense secretary, touched on issues that have consequences for the future of NATO as well as peacekeeping in the Balkans.

Washington, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former U.S. envoy to the Balkans Richard Holbrooke says it is premature and dangerous for the United States to consider withdrawing its peacekeeping troops from Bosnia.

Holbrooke on Tuesday criticized recent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said the U.S. military role in Bosnia is complete and it is time for its 3,800 troops to be brought home.

Holbrooke, who brokered the peace deal ending the Bosnian war, said these comments have sent tremors through the Balkans. He said they give encouragement to separatists in the region despite assurances from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that the United States was not planning a unilateral withdrawal.

"If the United States were to follow this precept, I will predict flatly that the rapists, racists, demagogues, and criminal elements in the Balkans will come back out of the woodwork."

Holbrooke pointed to a number of recent incidents in Bosnia, including the disruption of a mosque dedication ceremony, as tests of Western resolve. He described the U.S. presence in the Bosnian stabilization force as the "spine" that holds together the international peacekeeping mission.

His comments came during a discussion in Washington aimed at exploring the issues that are expected to dominate the upcoming series of NATO ministerial meetings starting next week and ending with a NATO summit in June. The event was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, a private think-tank.

Another member of the panel, Richard Perle, disagreed with Holbrooke, saying Western European forces are capable of handling the security aspects of the Bosnian mission on their own. Perle said that mission amounted mostly to policing hotspots.

"What I think the (Bush) administration is eager to avoid is the sort of long-term commitment that leads to the essentially permanent stationing of American forces long after the purpose that brought them to some remote location has vanished."

Perle advised the campaign of President George W. Bush on national security issues and served as an assistant secretary of defense in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The views presented by Holbrooke and Perle indicate to some degree the divide between policies enacted by the administration of former President Bill Clinton and new approaches sought by the Bush national security team.

They also touched on issues that have consequences for the future of NATO and the potential for an expanded military role by Washington's European allies. In Bosnia, for example, Holbrooke argued that the way to make policy there more effective was for the United States to work with its European allies to carry out the Dayton peace accords with new vigor.

"The way to get the troops out of the Balkans is vigorous implementation of Dayton and aggressive action against people who threaten it and other agreements in other parts of the region, not a minimalist approach."

Perle -- who served as a consultant to Bosnian officials at the Dayton talks -- agreed with Holbrooke that more robust action by the international community is needed five years after Dayton. That includes tracking down indicted war criminals like former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and rescheduling the mosque opening ceremony in Banja Luka.

But Perle expressed doubts that European nations involved in Bosnia would participate in such efforts. In the absence of such actions, he said, the United States must conclude that its military role is finished in Bosnia.

"I would be in favor of a significant American commitment, to a robust policy, but what we have now seems to me is the worst of all worlds. It's a weak policy. It's a caretaker sort of policy that is largely a police function and we have the United States Army there, so I don't think the Europeans are capable of taking on much but I think they can manage this at the same level at which we're now operating, which is to say, caretaking."

Perle also addressed the broader issue of U.S. security relations with Europe. Europe is now enjoying freedom, Perle says, from a dependence on U.S. security that existed during the Cold War. This has resulted in moves toward creating an independent European defense force. But Perle says some U.S. policymakers are also realizing that Washington does not need Europe in the same way now that the Cold War threat has subsided.

This is causing fundamental changes in the Trans-Atlantic relationship, he says.

"We no longer need them in the way that we once did. They are no longer vital to the defense of our interests in the world and while we continue to have important interests that I think it would be wise to strengthen and cement, that essential core is no longer there."

But a former Clinton administration deputy assistant secretary of state, Ronald Asmus, told panelists that it would be a mistake for the United States and Europe to try pursue common security aims separately.

Asmus said President Clinton's administration had dedicated much of its eight years to helping to unify Europe and build common cause on key issues. European nations, he says, are now concerned that President Bush is moving in another direction.

"One of the major sources of anxiety in Europe today is that the Bush administration will set off on a different course and will take a more unilateralist posture and a more unilateralist stance and that we will increasingly disagree and that the Bush team may move away from the policies that we pursued over the last decade."

Asmus says in the scheduled NATO meetings during the next several weeks, the Bush administration will have an opportunity to set a strategic direction for the Trans-Atlantic alliance on numerous crucial issues. In addition to Balkan peacekeeping, he says, those issues include NATO enlargement, missile defense and Europe's own proposal for a security force.