WASHINGTON — One of the first foreign-policy decisions President Bush must make is whether to keep US troops in the Balkans or withdraw them and transfer peacekeeping duties exclusively to the Europeans.
He would be wise to seek a speedy exit. Otherwise, the Balkans are likely to become an albatross around the neck of the new administration.
Despite a barrage of upbeat propaganda, the missions in Bosnia and Kosovo are not going well. Bosnia is no closer to being a viable country than it was when the Dayton peace accords were signed in 1995.
It is an ethnically segregated international colony with NATO troops policing a delicate cease-fire. In election after election, Serb, Croat, and Muslim voters reject moderate, multiethnic parties in favor of hard-line nationalist forces.
The elections are not meaningful in any case, because most real political power is exercised by an army of arbitrary and arrogant international bureaucrats, namely the UN high representatives and assorted other officials.
The economy is a shambles. A recent index of economic freedom published by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation ranked Bosnia 141st out of 156 countries surveyed - right between Syria and Yemen.
The situation in Kosovo is even worse. Since NATO took control in June 1999, there has been massive "reverse ethnic cleansing." More than 220,000 Serbs and other ethnic minorities - nearly 75 percent of the prewar non-Albanian population - have been driven from the province by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The ethnic cleansing has been accompanied by hundreds of murders and kidnappings.
More ominous, the KLA and its front groups are now fomenting violence in the Presevo Valley - the portion of Serbia next to Kosovo - and in western Macedonia. Greater Albanian nationalism is now the main disruptive element in the Balkans, and NATO forces - including US troops - may soon be called on to combat such expansionism. That would be profoundly dangerous.
Mr. Bush has two possible models for dealing with the Balkan problem:
1. The strategy Dwight Eisenhower employed with the Korean War he inherited from the Truman administration.
2. The strategy Richard Nixon followed with the Vietnam War he inherited from the Johnson administration.
General Eisenhower worked to end the Korean War as soon as possible. He succeeded within months of entering office and enjoyed great public acclaim for ending what had become a frustrating and unpopular venture.
Mr. Nixon, on the other hand, sought to end US involvement in the Vietnam War gradually. That approach proved far less successful. By the spring of 1970 - barely a year after he took office - Nixon was already receiving much of the blame for the war and its failures.
The incoming Bush administration should absorb the lesson of those contrasting experiences. The new president is likely to have only a brief window of opportunity to extricate the US from the Balkans morass before the American people begin to hold him responsible for anything that goes wrong.
If the Bosnia and Kosovo missions turn sour - as they show every sign of doing - a restless public will blame the person occupying the White House at the time. It may not be fair, but it will do President Bush little good to proclaim in 2002 or 2003 that he inherited a mess from Bill Clinton.
The crusading ventures in the Balkans are the kind of futile diversions of foreign-policy resources that the new administration should repudiate. It is in the nation's best interest that Bush make that repudiation quickly and clearly. It is also in his political self-interest.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for foreign-policy and defense studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society