Should US Fight War in Bosnia? Question Opens an Old Debate

With cold war over, the issue of when and where the US should send in the Marines is perhaps more open than it has been in years

THE Pentagon report sounds like a blueprint for why the United States should not send troops to Bosnia. Among other things, it complains that just because there's trouble somewhere doesn't mean Uncle Sam has to come running and try to help.

"The belief that the mere presence of US troops . . . could be useful in some way is not sufficient for our government to ask our troops to risk their lives," it says.

Any use of force has to be done quickly and in great strength. Quagmires are to be avoided at all costs.

"If . . . a peacekeeping force . . . cannot fulfill its mission because there is no peace, then it should be withdrawn," asserts the report.

A 1992 study of the Balkans? No - a 1986 Defense Department proclamation on the use of force. Taken from that year's Pentagon annual report to Congress, these passages echo the military's traditional reluctance to get involved in messy, ambiguous situations.

They are also reflective of a Washington debate on the use of military force that has been going on for decades. During the cold war, the debate was muted as national security concerns focused on the clear rivalry with the Soviet Union. With the cold war over, the issue of when and where to send in the Marines is perhaps more open than it has been in years, as the situation in ex-Yugoslavia makes clear.

"What this country faces is a philosophical decision on the use of force," says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The last time a high-level debate on this subject broke into view was 1984, when then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz carried out a verbal, public use-of-force duel. To the layman it may come as a surprise that Weinberger, and by inference the Pentagon, was the party with the much more limited view.

At the time, Mr. Weinberger laid out what he called "Six Tests" that any situation would have to pass when US officials weighed use of US force. Paraphrased, they are:

1. The US should not commit forces to combat unless its vital national interests, or those of its allies, are at stake.

2. If US leaders do decide to send troops, they should do so with the clear goal of winning. Actual forces should be sized accordingly.

3. Any commitment of force should have clearly defined political and military goals.

4. The relationship between goals and forces should be continually reassessed. If more troops are needed, send them; if it turns out our interests are not at stake, bring them home.

5. Any commitment of forces should have a reasonable assurance of the backing of the American people and the Congress.

6. Force should be a last resort.

The points, of course, conjure up memories of Indochina. The deployment of US troops to Vietnam, in the end, violated just about all six tests. While the memory of Vietnam fades for much of the US population, the military has long been determined to take its lessons to heart and never get caught again in such a situation.

"When you get through with the Weinberger list, there are very few places where you could use force," if the list is applied literally, points out Terry Deibel, a professor of national strategy at the National War College.

The Gulf war might have passed the tests. Bosnia probably does not. What US interests are at stake? What would be the goal of use of force?

The State Department and the White House, on the other hand, have often been quicker to see the military as more of a tool, or extension, of diplomacy. In his 1984 responses to Weinberger, George Shultz talked much less about "winning." He focused on the ends of force, citing instances in which he said power could be used legitimately:

* When it can help liberate a people.

* When its aim is to bring peace.

* When it prevents others from abusing their power through aggression or oppression.

Though in some respects this position simply expands on the more limited military tests, it implicitly holds out the view that certain values are worth fighting for. The other side of the argument, in a sort of hard-headed Kissingeresque realism mode, says only our security and prosperity are worth defending with blood. Iraq, after all, was going after oil the United States needed.

And Americans have always wanted to think they were about a bit more than traditional great power politics. "There's a powerful liberal internationalist strain in this country," says John Mearsheimer, chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago.

Using Bosnia as an example, Professor Mearsheimer says that by traditional logic the US doesn't have much strategic interest in Bosnia. But he says that an important human rights issue is beginning to surface there that could lead him to back the use of US force: the question of alleged genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

For all the suffering that civilians have already gone through in ex-Yugoslavia, attempts at the deliberate extinction of a people would take cruelty to a higher level and resonate through history.

"In certain circumstances one should use military force for human rights reasons, not just strategic reasons," Mearsheimer argues.

During the cold-war years, US decisions on use of force almost always hinged on what American policymakers thought Moscow was up to. In some ways that made things easier, by giving a clear framework to work with. Whether it was an accurate framework is another question. Now, says Professor Deibel, the US is perhaps freer to pursue its humanitarian tendencies.

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