Consulting Allies: No-Win Act

THE Bosnian crisis has once more brought into focus the issue of trans-Atlantic consultations. Europeans and many Americans have criticized Secretary of State Warren Christopher because, in his consultations with the Europeans on the Balkans crisis, his objective was to listen rather than to present a plan.

In the past, Washington has attempted to keep Europeans informed of United States policies and to consult where possible. But governments on the continent often accused the US of informing them of decisions rather than consulting in advance. In the US capital, it has never been easy to avoid presenting the Europeans with a "fait accompli." When Congress was consulted before the Europeans and the decision leaked, Europeans were upset. If Congress read about decisions being discussed with other governments , legislative ire was aroused. Yet in the days of confrontation with the Soviet Union, Western Europe and the US found common ground on most issues. Always clear, the mission of NATO provided a central focus. In the US, administrations had strong public and congressional support for keeping NATO strong, which made US initiatives possible and credible. Washington's voice was influential also because the US was prepared to commit resources and take reasonable risks to pursue a common goal.

The Gulf war was, perhaps, the last event in which these conditions were likely to prevail. President Bush was firm in his objectives, which European nations generally shared. Despite an uncertain Congress, the president believed he had the support of the public and of the nation's military leaders. Secretary of State James Baker III visited the continent to build a coalition and enlist the support of Allied governments. And the US was prepared to commit substantial forces and resources to the effort.

Regardless of differences over the US policy on Bosnia, one fact is plain: The US is not prepared to risk lives or extended involvement in the former Yugoslavia. The reluctance of European leaders with troops on the ground under the UN flag to agree to US proposals for bombing Serbs and arming the Muslims is understandable. So is their bridling at criticisms from Washington that they lack courage. The US is dropping supplies from high altitudes and flying unchallenged patrols over the territory. However useful, these are not as risky as having UN personnel in armored vehicles operating under restricted rules of engagement seek to deter angry, better-armed Serbs.

Yet Europeans have little grounds for complaining that Mr. Christopher brought them no firm proposals. In new circumstances and with the administration's emphasis on multilateral actions, he sought to make the consultations genuine with the intent of reaching an agreement after the visits. Given the divisions in the administration and in the American body politic, he probably had little choice.

Bosnia represents the first crisis in a period when the trans-Atlantic balance has shifted. Without the Soviet threat or a serious challenge to Western economic interests, Washington is less willing to commit to dramatic and costly efforts. Christopher should be given credit for a genuine attempt at consultation, not criticism for failing to play cards he did not have.

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