The US - a Reluctant Peacekeeper in Troubled Regions

TO many in the rest of the world, the United States appears to be a reluctant peacekeeper.

Canada and France led the way in sending soldiers, under United Nations command, to secure the Sarajevo airport. The US leadership expressed its concern over the death and destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina but made clear it was unwilling to commit ground forces to the region. Perhaps an air cover - at relatively less risk - might be provided, but not soldiers in the area of the fighting.

Possible explanations appeared lame, certainly to those in the troubled region. The president could not risk the lives of Americans in an election year. Sending military units to a combat region would involve confronting Congress over the War Powers Act - although this was not an inhibition when forces were sent to Grenada or Panama.

The task of providing military peacekeepers is for other nations - not for the major powers. The US, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has voted consistently for strong measures against the Serbian forces, but Americans appeared - at least until now - to believe that separating the warring forces in the former Yugoslavia was not their problem.

They seem little to appreciate that these isolated issues can affect the wider peace, with consequences for all nations including the US. Such would be the case, for example, if other nations, adjacent to Yugoslavia, were brought in on separate sides of a conflict, thus escalating the situation into a major war.

The reluctance of the US to support efforts to establish peace extends to money as well. The Bush administration has committed itself to pay its share of the UN budget, but arrearages still exist. Americans should not be surprised if others consider US national priorities skewed in today's world.

Congress and the administration talk about multiple billions of dollars for programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative and major weapon systems, but only millions are available - if at all - to secure peace in troubled regions.

Other factors also bear on this reluctance. Americans - especially those with conservative views - still harbor doubts about the global role of the UN. Still more, including many in Congress, are opposed to placing US forces under a foreign command - as other nations do in a UN Blue Helmet operation. And the peacekeeping role in high-risk areas conjures up recollections of the tragedy of the 242 US Marines killed in a terrorist attack in Lebanon in 1983.

The US does contribute some forces to a peacekeeping operation - to the multilateral force monitoring peace between Israel and Egypt. But, because of the unwillingness of Israel to have UN forces on its border, that force is not under the UN. And given the relative stability along the Sinai border, the risk to the peacekeepers is not great.

In a world increasingly marked by bitter regional conflicts, the role of the peacekeeper becomes central to global stability. As the current conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrates, solely diplomatic efforts to create cease-fires are not enough.

Some demonstration of military power - however minimal - is essential if relief routes are to be opened and the world organization is to demonstrate its determination. The more nations that can participate in such efforts with well-trained, disciplined forces, the more effective these efforts will be.

The time has come for the US seriously to reevaluate its policy toward the contribution of its armed forces to UN peacekeeping efforts.

The cold war that made the international body reluctant to ask for units from either the US or the Soviet Union has passed. Washington is also urging Germany and Japan to change their laws to permit these countries to join UN peacekeeping efforts. In the changed world circumstances, the nation that is urging others and that was prepared to put its soldiers on the front lines in the Caribbean and in the Gulf war cannot draw back from the risk of joining others in separating warring factions in troubled re gions.

The UN today faces its greatest challenge and greatest opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to prevent the escalation of conflict and to assist peoples harassed by war. Circumstances exist not only in the former Yugoslavia, but in areas of Central Asia and in Cambodia.

The US - the nation that helped to foster the UN and speaks loudly of its desire for peace, security, and democracy in the world - cannot stand by while others take the risks inherent in establishing, keeping, and maintaining the peace.

To continue to be a reluctant peacekeeper is to opt out of the role of leadership Americans and others expect of this nation.

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