NEW YORK — The debate over United States involvement in the Balkans appears to have come full circle. A decade ago, at the very outset of the violent conflict that emerged in former Yugoslavia, the administration of George Bush wrestled with what response, if any, the US should make to the challenge in the Balkans.
As it turned out, Mr. Bush and his advisers decided not to take significant action to prevent aggression in the region.
In 1992, when Serbian forces began their onslaught in Bosnia, then-candidate Bill Clinton assailed President Bush for his lack of action in preventing "ethnic cleansing" and widespread bloodshed. After taking the White House, the Clinton administration itself dithered for nearly three years before taking meaningful action against the principal forces behind the aggression.
Now, eight years after Mr. Clinton excoriated the elder Bush for inaction in the Balkans, Bush's son and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush is taking to task his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, for being too active there.
Mr. Bush has indicated that, if elected, he would make the total pullout of American peacekeepers in the Balkan region a major foreign policy goal of his administration.
He argues that the Europeans must shoulder a greater burden of the peacekeeping effort there, allowing the US military to focus on other, more vital objectives around the globe.
That Bush believes the time is ripe for such a discussion may be an indication that conditions on the ground in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo have improved enough to scale back American participation there.
By virtually any yardstick, however, the situation is not sufficiently settled for a retrenchment of American leadership.
During the post-conflict period, the NATO peacekeeping mission has been a key guarantor of stability in the Balkans. The American peacekeeping contingent is less than one-fifth of the total NATO force of 65,000. And yet, the relatively modest US contribution is a critical element that undergirds the entire NATO operation.
Engagement in the Balkans has been difficult and often messy. But as a result of a reform-minded government that took power in Croatia earlier this year, Slobodan Milosevic's recent removal from power in Serbia, and relative calm in Bosnia, there are some reasons for hope.
At the same time, there are any number of political minefields across the Balkan landscape; Kosovo is a case in point. Since the end of the NATO bombing campaign, the international community has kept Kosovo in a state of political suspension. There is no consensus plan for Kosovo's long-term future.
Mr. Milosevic's removal from power has opened the way for a new course in Serbia, but his departure also alters the regional political equation and introduces a new and potentially volatile phase in the Kosovo conundrum. The Albanians of Kosovo are angling for independence, though for the time being Kosovo technically remains a province of Serbia under NATO-led occupation and United Nations administration.
Last Saturday, Albanians in Kosovo came out in large numbers to vote in Kosovo's first municipal elections since the NATO bombing. Albanians in Kosovo view the elections, which were administered by international authorities, as the first step on the path to self-government.
The Serbs of Kosovo, representing a minority of less than 10 percent in the province, boycotted the ballot in protest of their isolated status.
Whether the Europeans would be able effectively to deal on their own with Kosovo and other potential flashpoints in the Balkans is an open question.
To date, the Europeans have yet to demonstrate that they can manage crises of the magnitude of those in the Balkans without American leadership.
It is safe to say, however, that the experience in the early 1990s, when only the Europeans had soldiers in Bosnia, revealed that such an asymmetric distribution of burdens and risks is not consistent with successful policy. Indeed, a repeat of this kind of asymmetry could seriously fray the NATO alliance.
The European response to the Bush proposal has been muted so far, with some officials implying that the rhetoric of a candidate for president is far less worrisome than the rhetoric - or possible actions - from a person actually sitting in the Oval Office.
Few dispute that there will be a need for an international security presence in parts of the Balkans for many years to come. Gore, for his part, has indicated that he would keep American peacekeepers in the region until the mission is complete. But determining what "complete" means won't be an exact science.
Ultimately, we are left with the question of how best to advance our interests under highly imperfect conditions, taking into account the considerable diplomatic, financial, and military investments the US has already made in the Balkan region.
Most vital is that the US does not signal a premature pullout from a still unsettled part of the world. To do so would risk our investment and jeopardize our interests: Balkan stability and NATO survivability.
Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in European affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society