After planning to shutter the US military's only site dedicated to the study of international peacekeeping, the Pentagon last week reversed its decision: the Peacekeeping Institute at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., will no longer close its doors at the end of the federal budget year.
The reversal symbolizes what appears to be a change of heart about an activity that since the early days of the Bush administration has been dismissed as largely peripheral to the core functions of the US military.
The new interest in postconflict stability relates in part to the pressing issue in Iraq - how to deal with a messier, deadlier, and more costly environment than anticipated.
Another factor: Liberia. The administration has spent weeks mulling the form of promised US involvement to quell civil conflict there. With the US inching toward some kind of lead role in a largely African international stabilization force - details could come as early as Monday, when President Bush meets with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - the prototype of a new direction in American peacekeeping may be emerging.
This doesn't mean the reversal of a decade of reluctance to deploy peacekeeping forces. Far from it, analysts say. But factors ranging from Iraq and terrorism to US interests in a stable, globalizing world suggest that new Bush administration thinking about a once-dismissed topic will result in some new forms of American involvement in peacekeeping activities.
"They are clearly changing their thinking [about peacekeeping], and all depends on whether they want to make use of current institutions or not," says William Durch, an expert on peacekeeping at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
It was President Bush who told Americans before his election that he would not send US troops on stabilizing missions in far-flung places like Africa. Now, his assurance that the US will take part in peace efforts in Liberia is just one of the indications of the administration's growing interest in peacekeeping efforts.
The president, fresh from a five-day trip to Africa, is set to meet Secretary General Annan at the White House Monday. UN sources say the White House has also invited the UN's undersecretary for peacekeeping, suggesting that Bush, after days of deliberations on possible configurations for US involvement in Liberia, may be ready to make a decision.
Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested as much last week. He said a Liberia force would be "facilitated and supported in some way" by the US, "but letting others take the lead in the long-term work."
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has hinted more broadly at the hard thinking going on about peacekeeping. In a speech to defense industry representatives last month, he spoke of his interest "in the idea of our leading, or contributing to in some way, a cadre of people in the world who would like to participate in peacekeeping or peacemaking."
The US would "provide leadership for training of other countries' citizens" who would make up this "ready cadre of people," Mr. Rumsfeld said, either to intervene in conflicts or tackle post-conflict stabilization.
A striking aspect of his comments is the notion of creating and training such a force outside the purview of the UN or NATO - international organizations that have generally assumed these functions in the past.
"Even Donald Rumsfeld may not be certain of what he has in mind, but it's clear he and others are really looking at this," says Allison Stanger, an expert in US foreign policy and international relations at Middlebury College in Vermont.
One reason to skirt the UN and NATO would be to retain greater control of the force, and to avoid the kind of international debate and rejection of a potential deployment that the US encountered over Iraq.
But some experts warn the US should think twice before moving too far from experienced global peacekeeping institutions.
"The Bush administration seems to be rediscovering the wheel," says James Lindsay, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. "The fact is that we got a lot of experience with peacekeeping in the 1990s."
Other factors may be spurring the peacekeeping rethink. One is cost. "You can read Rumsfeld's recent remarks a variety of ways, but one thing you can be sure of is that these guys are interested in cutting costs," says Professor Stanger. Last week, Rumsfeld told Congress that US activities in Iraq are averaging $3.9 billion a month - more than the administration had anticipated.
The Iraq force now has about 150,000 American troops, with foreign participants (aside from the British) only now trickling in. Even if an expected 20,000 foreign troops arrive in Iraq by fall, many of them, including those from Poland and several Central American nations, will be paid for by the US. At a cost that could exceed $250 million a year, employing foreign troops in Iraq is attractive on several fronts. It would free a stretched US Army for other duties, cut benefit and other costs, and possibly reduce US casualties.
The US employment of foreign troops in Iraq, plus the coalescing US-directed foreign force in Liberia, could be harbingers of US peacekeeping operations to come - not too different from the peacekeeping operations of other "rich" countries, one UN official notes. A developed country provides the "backbone" for an operation and others, generally developing nations interested in the cash income from farming out their troops, provide soldiers.
"We're going to be seeing more outsourcing in this, either to other countries or to private companies," says Stanger. That raises issues of accountability and even allegiance (would foreign troops be enforcing US policy, or some greater international good?) that have not been so problematic for UN operations.