WASHINGTON — For several weeks now, Gov. George W. Bush has been making dubious claims about the readiness of the US military. Relying on outdated data, Mr. Bush has publicly deplored that two of the Army's divisions are not prepared for combat. The Pentagon quickly corrected that assertion. Regardless, Bush has yet to propose major changes in policy or funding that would have a tangible impact on military readiness.
The core of Bush's critique is that the US is committing its troops too often in scenarios only tangentially important to American interests. He and his advisers suggest that the US should avoid smaller conflicts or peacekeeping missions, implying that they erode our ability to fight bigger wars.
Consider the consequences of what Bush is saying. Leave aside the modest US peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula, which has wide bipartisan support, and the deployment in Haiti, which is too small (only 100 US troops now) to impact the readiness of the American military.
The only other place where the US has deployed significant numbers of troops in the past eight years is the Balkans. Bush is hinting that the US should scale back its commitments in Kosovo and Bosnia, opening up an even bigger debate about the scope of US commitment to Europe. On this issue the two presidential candidates appear to disagree.
The Clinton-Gore team has consistently promoted an undivided Europe that is peaceful, democratic, and in alliance and partnership with the US. After initially wobbling in Bosnia, the Clinton administration recognized that stabilizing and integrating Europe's eastern half was essential to Europe's security, and therefore our own. American political and military muscle helped precipitate the Dayton peace accords. The US pushed for NATO to include Central Europe and negotiated the US-Baltic Charter. Finally, the administration backed diplomacy with force and led the NATO mission that opposed Serb President Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
The notion of a "Europe whole and free" was coined by Bush's father. But Republicans have not always backed that rhetoric with policy. President Bush wavered before recognizing Baltic and Ukrainian independence and declined to enlarge NATO.
Instead of confronting Mr. Milosevic and genocide in the Balkans, he deemed the conflict not vital to American interests and dumped the problem on Europe, knowing full well that Europe was unlikely to be able to handle it.
Bush and the GOP claim to support NATO, and most Republicans (like most Democrats) in the Senate supported the Clinton-Gore administration when it invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join NATO. But many Republicans, such as Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri, opposed the idea of new alliance members and missions. Furthermore, there are serious divisions within the GOP, even among Bush's own advisers.
Vice President Al Gore has enunciated a policy of "forward engagement." He favors addressing conflicts before they escalate. In Europe, he supports an integration strategy, not an exit strategy. The vice president has a track record when it comes to building a post-cold-war alliance. With Central Europe now secure, the task is to anchor the Balkans and Baltics more solidly within Europe and the trans-Atlantic community. Vice President Gore calls for NATO's post-cold-war transformation as a vehicle to hasten European unification, and to promote broader strategic cooperation between Europe and the United States.
If a future Bush administration withdrew our troops from Bosnia and Kosovo, it would lead to a dire rift with our European allies and partners, who provide nearly 85 percent of the troops for these two operations. Fighting likely would resume in the Balkans. Milosevic would be emboldened. Europe would be less stable. NATO, one of our great security assets, would become increasingly weak and irrelevant. The hope of further enlarging NATO would nearly vanish, and Europe would turn further inward.
With American security and lives at stake, Bush has an obligation to be candid. Would he not have used American troops to help stop the worst ethnic slaughter in Europe since World War II? Does he want to lead NATO and fulfill the vision of a Europe whole and free?
If Bush really means that he will virtually never commit American forces to anything short of a major war, he should say so, and then defend the implications. If this is not what he means, then his talk about American overextension is little more than an effort to placate a desire among a portion of his party for the old and pernicious "Fortress America."
Ronald D. Asmus is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the second Clinton administration. Jeremy Rosner is a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Research and was special adviser to the president and secretary of State for NATO enlargement ratification.
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