Bush shifts his stand on peacekeeping

He campaigned on withdrawing troops, but is discovering it's easier said than done.

It's not uncommon. A presidential candidate pledges one thing on the campaign trail, then gets to the Oval Office and discovers that real life won't necessarily conform to campaign rhetoric.

Peacekeeping is a case in point.

As a candidate, George W. Bush said US troops should be used to fight and win wars, and peacekeeping in places like the Balkans should be left to others. Yet this week, NATO announced it was "not advisable" to undertake major reductions in Bosnia, suggesting that only modest cutbacks could be made.

Trying to calm European jitters about a unilateral American withdrawal, Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured his NATO colleagues that "we went into this together, and we'll come out together." In a recent background briefing with reporters, a senior administration official underscored that message, promising, "we're not going to cut and run."

Even one of the administration's greatest critics of the Bosnia mission, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is now considering dedicating a certain portion of America's armed forces specifically to peacekeeping activities.

As he undertakes a massive military review, Mr. Rumsfeld has said he needs to look not only ahead to possible new threats, but back at recent trends. A glance at the past decade shows US involvement in "a bucket" of secondary conflicts and issues, he points out.

"Mightn't we want to size our forces also for some other things, like a Bosnia or a Kosovo or a noncombatant evacuation in some country, or maybe one or two or three of those things?" Rumsfeld said last month.

Coming to terms

Observers on both the left and right describe a tempering in the administration's position on peacekeeping, necessitated by circumstances on the ground and concerns of allies.

"Part of the [pre-election] rhetoric was guided by the campaign and reaction against Clinton. There was a sense that Clinton got us into too much peacekeeping, [and that] peacekeeping must be bad," says Jeffrey Gedmin, a European specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who is close to the administration.

"The truth is, the world has changed in so many complex and fundamental ways, that if you want to be a superpower, and you want to represent interests and have alliances, and you want to have nothing to do with peacekeeping, you're not looking at the world as it exists today," he says.

"And so now, they've come to terms. They've gone out, they've had consultations, and they've reviewed things, and they've said, 'Gee, even if our instincts don't run toward it, responsibility does not permit us to cut from it.' "

This does not mean the administration is embracing an activist view that the United States should be more involved in peacekeeping, such as in Africa.

Internal divides

While the secretary of State is trying to calm the waters, the secretary of Defense is still stirring them up, a signal that the administration is split over the issue.

Rumsfeld is not only pushing for US withdrawal from Bosnia - saying the military mission there is over - he also has questioned US participation in peacekeeping in the Sinai and US assistance in training African peacekeeping forces.

The senior administration official, in the meantime, says "new energy" must be applied to building civil institutions in Bosnia, and that the military is no substitute for a functioning police force or judicial system.

"This administration, even among conservatives and neo-conservatives, is rather split on this issue - to what degree the US should be involved in these interventions," says Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Still, Mr. Spencer sees agreement on an underlying principle, which he believes the administration is "sticking to."

That principle, he says, recognizes the dangers of "mission-creep" - a 16-fold increase in the number of peacekeeping missions in the past 10 years, and a resulting decrease in overall combat readiness.

Ripple effect

According to the Pentagon, about 10 percent of the armed forces are involved in peacekeeping worldwide on any given day. But those missions have a ripple effect. For every unit in Bosnia, for instance, there's another one returning from there, and yet another in the wings, training to be the next replacements.

Additionally, specialists are often pulled from units and sent on peacekeeping missions, disrupting the readiness of the troops they have left behind.

The trick for the administration, says Spencer, is to ensure that peacekeeping doesn't undermine the military's primary task of defending vital US interests and deterring large-scale aggression. While the president's national security team is obviously still wrestling with this issue, he says, it's unlikely that Mr. Bush will take on new peacekeeping missions.

"I don't think we'll necessarily start pulling out all the troops from Kosovo and Bosnia right away," Spencer says, "But what they will be very careful about is putting new forces in new areas."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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