Editor's Column: Bush Is Wrong On Kosovo

27 October 2000

By Stentor Danielson

Texas Governor George W. Bush wants the U.S. military to do less in the world. As President, he would start with our highest profile foreign deployment - peacekeeping in Kosovo. In an interview Saturday, Bush's top national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice, told The New York Times that President Bush would make America's allies in Europe take over on-the-ground duties in Yugoslavia. This points out some of the problems in applying Bush's nice sounding non-interventionist policy to real situations. In general terms, Bush's philosophy on foreign military intervention has some appeal. Particularly applicable in the case of Kosovo is his insistence that any deployment must have a clear plan.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)'s action against Slobodan Milosevic seemed plagued by a feeling that we ought to be doing something, coupled with an uncertainty as to what exactly we were trying to accomplish. We very nearly ran out of bombs and things to drop them on before Milosevic got tired of the game and conceded a NATO victory.

It is telling that Vice President Al Gore, who is now unsurprisingly attacking the call to pull American troops out of the Balkans, originally promised that our forces would be home within a year. Perhaps he thought that, if the Serbs and Kosovars could be stopped from killing each other for a moment, they would magically stop hating each other. But we must look at the situation as it stands now. Bush's plan to shift the peacekeeping burden to our NATO allies in Europe would accomplish little.

When the topic of foreign policy and defense comes up, Bush likes to talk about how the U.S. military is overextended. Pullbacks like the one he proposes for Kosovo are billed as making various regions take care of their own, rather than expecting the United States to be the world's policeman. What Bush overlooks is that Europe already does the bulk of the work in Kosovo. Only a fifth of NATO's 65,000-strong presence in Kosovo is American. This number is less than half of the United States' original deployment to the region. Wesley Clark, who commanded the NATO mission, said "If we want to be part of this, we can't do much less."

Bush also likes to lament the loss of morale in the armed forces. He and Rice suggest that by reducing the military's involvement overseas, we will reduce stress on available resources and thereby increase morale. But this conflicts with the observations of the soldiers actually on peacekeeping missions. American personnel in Kosovo say that they find it rewarding to be doing something with their training, to be making a difference in the world. It seems likely that the military could increase its morale (and its recruitment) as well as honing its techniques by continuing to work in key regions of the world, rather than staying at home to prepare for World War III.

The overarching rationale behind the pullback is that America's military should be used to fight wars, not for peacekeeping. The problem is that "winning" a war is only the first step. We "won" the Gulf War in rather decisive fashion, but Saddam Hussein continues to yank our chain as much as he can get away with. And the wars of hate that are in vogue in the world's current hot spots like the Balkans and East Timor are less likely than the conflicts of the past to be settled by a climactic battle and a peace treaty.

Like it or not, conflicts requiring "peacekeeping" action are the new face of military action in the world. It is interesting to note that, while Bush has trumpeted a proposal to "skip a generation" of military technology to establish a super-modernized force, Rice told the Times that the Governor wants America to focus on preparing for what she called "traditional" conflicts. The United States needs a modern military to address modern conflicts. The United States clearly misunderstood what it was getting into when it orchestrated the bombing of everything and anything in Serbia. But this does not mean that we shouldn't face up to the consequences. Though many Republicans opposed taking action in Kosovo, Bush made it clear that he supported NATO's initial intervention. So he ought to be able to take responsibility for the consequences of getting involved.

A final concern with Bush's proposal is the implied snub to NATO. NATO is an important strategic alliance for the United States, so it would be foolish to send the message that, once the fireworks are over, we aren't interested in the hard work. If Bush makes a habit of this kind of abdication of responsibility, it will doubtless be seen by some as tantamount to withdrawal from NATO, and potentially even the UN. At the very least, by withdrawing support on the ground the United States loses its right to claim leadership in NATO. But without American leadership, the alliance is substantially weakened.

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