Gov. George W. Bush has injected the issue of American military involvement in the Balkans into a campaign that was almost devoid of contentious foreign-policy issues. And he's done so in a manner likely to be at least confusing, at most alarming, to America's European allies.
Until recently, Mr. Bush tended to address the question of American deployment only in general terms.
At the Republican convention in Philadelphia, his foreign-policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, summed it up this way: "George W. Bush believes that America has a special responsibility to keep the peace.... He recognizes that the magnificent men and women of America's armed forces are not a global police force. They are not the world's 911."
The Republican candidate became more specific in his second debate with Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11. He endorsed President Clinton's decision to use air power, though not ground troops, against Serbia because of the importance of keeping NATO strong.
But then Mr. Bush made this remark: "I'm also on record as saying, at some point in time, I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia and in the Balkans. I hope that they put the troops on the ground so that we can withdraw our troops and focus our military on fighting and winning war."
It is not clear whether Bush was aware that European countries have troops on the ground - in fact, four-fifths of the 66,000 soldiers in the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Kosovo. Bush went on to suggest that the 11,000 American peacekeepers in the Balkans be replaced by European troops, and further that the European allies assume responsibility for dealing with future European flashpoints.
He said, "It's as important for NATO to have it work. It's important for NATO to be strong and confident, to help keep the peace in Europe."
Apparently to clarify Bush's position, Ms. Rice gave The New York Times an interview suggesting a division of labor within the alliance, with Europe taking responsibility for situations like Bosnia and Kosovo, while the US concentrated on trouble spots elsewhere around the globe, like the Persian Gulf and Asia.
This raises the question of whether a President Bush would withdraw the 70,000 American troops stationed in Germany who could no longer be available for European assignments.
Ivo Daalder, the Brookings Institution's NATO expert, says the statements by Bush and Rice tend to reinforce France and others who want to build a European force and loosen ties with the US.
There is also the question of whether the division of labor would mean that a Bush administration would act unilaterally in Asia or the Persian Gulf.
Vice President Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have seized on Bush's position to warn of instability in Europe and a possible crumbling of NATO. European officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels, speaking on background, are expressing alarm that a "division of labor" would erode the NATO principle of collective security and shared risk.
It looks as though there is a foreign-policy issue in our election campaign, after all.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society