For Bush, pulling US out of Balkans won't be easy

Even before President-elect George W. Bush enters the White House, he's finding out that some campaign goals are easier said than done.

During his candidacy, Mr. Bush and his advisers attacked the Clinton administration for neglecting the armed forces and exacerbating already-low levels of military readiness by overextending troops abroad. In particular, Bush focused on some 11,000 US soldiers in the Balkans, who are keeping the peace after wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Bush said he would move to withdraw those troops because the region isn't a central US interest.

A closer look, however, reveals a complex situation that could affect at least two key US concerns: Europe and Russia. And Bush is already toning down his statements about withdrawing from the Balkans.

"He's not going to cut and run," said Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas last week, after she and other lawmakers met with the president-elect to discuss national security issues.

Yet at the same time, Bush does intend to gradually phase out US commitments in the Balkans. And it is also likely that, when new crises arise, Bush will be hesitant to put American soldiers into the mix.

"The chances of more humanitarian intervention in the next four years will be between slim and none," says John Hulsman, a Heritage Foundation analyst who has briefed members of the incoming administration.

This does not mean the US will become isolationist, Mr. Hulsman says, but that the Bush team will practice "realist internationalism." Such a policy would mark a significant departure from that of the Clinton administration, which was criticized at home and abroad for intervening too often and without clear guidelines.

Bush's nominee for secretary of State, retired Gen. Colin Powell, has suggested that the US follow concrete rules for sending troops abroad. The so-called "Powell Doctrine," developed while the general worked under Reagan Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, calls for intervention only when vital US interests are at stake and all other means of influence have been exhausted. Furthermore, the action should be swift, overwhelming, and defined, with the support of the American people and Congress.

Yet it remains to be seen if the Powell Doctrine is still applicable in a world that has changed dramatically since the Reagan administration. It is equally unclear whether Powell's priorities remain the same as he tackles a new job.

"We must remember that [the Powell Doctrine] was articulated at a time when he was a military chief of staff," says a State Department official. "Now he has completely different responsibilities."

In the case of the Balkans, a US pullout would have broad implications.

If it is done too swiftly, it could frustrate European allies, who would have to pick up the slack with limited military capabilities.

The Bush administration may not want to cause friction at a time when it has greater concerns to bring up with the Europeans and the Russians. One is the building of a national missile defense, which the Bush administration is eager to push forward with, but which the rest of the world opposes. Another source of tension is NATO enlargement, which the US favors.

A US pullout from the Balkans could also have a dramatic effect on the ground, especially in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians there, whom the US has supported in the past, want independence. But the Serbs, who are undergoing an image change with the election of a democratic president, want the province to remain part of Serbia. Because of these conflicting goals, the Europeans, if left alone in Kosovo, could have a mess on their hands.

"This would cause serious political damage with our NATO allies," the State Department official says. "It would give the signal that we were cutting and running and leaving the ball with the Europeans."

Jeffrey Gedmin, a European-affairs expert at the American Enterprise Institute who is familiar with the new administration's thinking, acknowledges that a US pullout could be harmful. "It could cause significant problems on the ground, but as long as it's contained [and doesn't spread to neighboring countries], we can live with that."

At the same time, he says, the US needs to pay greater attention to its relationship with Europe - by keeping European leaders in the loop and not telling them how to run their own democracies (something current Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been accused of doing).

According to Mr. Gedmin, as the European Union matures, it will try to transform itself from an economic alliance into a political player. "There's going to be a lot of jockeying for position, and we need to pay attention."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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