America unsettled over global role

Unrest in the Balkans is again forcing the United States to furtherdefine its role in post-Soviet world security.

Mission creep. Exit strategy. Risk factors.

Words that entered the public dialogue when America sent troops to Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia are again the stuff of congressional hearings and nightly news shows.

Now President Clinton is planning to send 4,000 American soldiers to Serbia's Kosovo province to help secure a peace deal between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, should one be reached in talks in France.

Mr. Clinton's proposal to join a NATO-led peacekeeping mission in the Balkans - for the second time in three years - has revived many of the apprehensions raised by his decision to risk American lives in Bosnia. These include the length, risk, and cost of deployment; the strain on an overstretched military; and, most critically, the importance of Kosovo to the overall security of the US.

That these questions are again being debated is seen by some experts as fresh proof that a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall the US is still uncomfortable about the role it should play in the post-communist world.

"We are in a period in which most Americans, with the economy growing rapidly, do not feel threatened by any particular international crisis," explains Stephen Hook, a foreign-policy expert at Kent State University in Ohio. "They are wary about committing US forces into a crisis that has uncertain outcomes. When the American people are not directly threatened, their tendency is to remain detached."

Indeed, there are members of government who are also leery of any US involvement in Kosovo. "When we have people from this administration coming to us and saying we have to again put American troops in harm's way in a distant shore, it's a failure of the policy of this administration," charged Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California at a Feb. 10 House International Relations Committee hearing. "It's destined to fail and lead us obviously into another long-term military commitment with ... no exit strategy."

Administration officials respond that the US has a crucial interest in ensuring that the fighting in Kosovo does not explode into an all-out war that could destabilize the entire region. American participation in a peacekeeping force, they argue, is critical to NATO cohesion and credibility, but will be guided by strict conditions. These include holding the US contribution to about 10 percent of the 30,000-strong force, the bulk of which will comprise British and French troops, and establishing a clear exit strategy.

The peace accord proposed by the US, France, Russia, Britain, Italy, and Germany would require Serbia, the dominant republic of what remains of Yugoslavia, to relinquish its iron-clad rule of Kosovo. The province's ethnic Albanian majority would have to accept autonomy, and drop their demand for independence.

MEANWHILE, there are signs that perhaps one segment of American society is becoming less wary about its new role in the post-cold war world: the American military.

In the years following the collapse of the Soviet empire, many officers were loath to take on missions that strayed from their primary task of fighting and winning the nation's wars. As a result, there was enormous resistance even within the top brass to US involvement in Bosnia.

But some military officials say many commanders have since then come to accept that in the absence of a "peer competitor," the armed forces should be prepared to take on a limited number of other missions. For this reason, the Pentagon is more comfortable with taking part in a Kosovo mission than it might have been in the past.

As evidence, these officials point to the Pentagon's agreement to place the US unit under the immediate command of the British general in charge of the overall peacekeeping force. US officers have also had a lot of time to familiarize themselves with conditions in Kosovo and the threats they may face. There is also less fretting over the prospect of a long-term deployment.

A major factor contributing to this, they say, is the success of the NATO-led peace operation in Bosnia. Having overseen the disengagement and demobilization of the warring Muslim, Croat, and Serbian armies, the US-commanded force created conditions for implementing political provisions of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, they say.

In the process, not a single American soldier has been lost in hostile action, while the US contingent, which at it height numbered 22,000, is now at 2,900 and is being reduced to 2,200.

"We've had three years in which we've seen some success in Bosnia," says one United States military official. "Our people realize that we can do these missions and also have an effect on the situation."

Still, he and others say concerns still exit, including the diversion to Kosovo of military units that might be needed elsewhere.

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