TCS Daily

To Chirac from the US army: We are staying in the Balkans

By Richard Perle - March 19, 2001 12:00 AM

Press reports that the United States might reduce its presence in Bosnia over the next two years have produced hand-wringing among diplomats and hysterical headlines in the most unlikely places: "Bush pulls out troops as Balkans crisis deepens" is how the Guardian - not the first paper I would expect to lament the withdrawal of the US army - breathlessly informed its readers last Friday.

Perhaps the facts will reassure anxious Guardian readers: at its last semi-annual review, the US and its Nato allies established force levels in Bosnia that are smaller than the deployment we have there now. The "pull-out" is nothing more than the repatriation of the excess units, including some helicopters, tanks and armoured cars. When they are all safely back home, the American contingent in Bosnia will be at the level agreed last December after thorough Nato consultations. At no time, either before the December review or since, have I heard it argued that this reduction either jeopardises the effectiveness of Nato in Bosnia or imposes an unfair burden on America's Nato allies.

That is just as well: for all the talk of a new European Security and Defence Identity to be cobbled together out of the disparate outlooks and forces of the member states of the European Union, it is Nato, and not the EU, that has brought peace - and such stability as can be found there - to the Balkans.

There is, working its way through the policy-making process in Washington, a paper circulated by the Joint Staff (made up of officers from the uniformed military services) that contemplates gradual reductions in the American presence in Bosnia as circumstances warrant, and after appropriate consultation within Nato.

It was the leak of this paper that caused some observers to worry that the US, under the new administration, might be withdrawing from the Balkans, abandoning its Nato commitment and retreating into isolationism. Judging from past practice, it will not be long before French diplomats are putting it about that the reduction in American forces in Bosnia validates the French argument for a Euro army.

The paper in question is a draft reflecting the view of the staff officers who wrote it. It is not even the final considered view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, much less the view of the civilian authorities to whom they report, including the Secretaries of Defence and State and the President. They will eventually decide the size and nature of the American presence in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.

It is possible that President Bush will propose to his Nato allies that American forces in Bosnia be further reduced. Any such suggestion would reflect the fact that the armed conflict in Bosnia ended long ago. The time when Nato's air power was needed to secure the peace, and its mechanised armed presence to protect it, are past. The Apache helicopters now being withdrawn were designed to destroy enemy tanks, none of which has been seen in Bosnia for years. The American tanks coming out have not fired a shell in combat since they were introduced after the Dayton accord years ago. It is hugely expensive to keep them where they are not needed.

The task now in Bosnia is rebuilding the country - and the urgent requirement is for civil administration and police protection, neither of which is best accomplished by men and women trained to destroy targets on the battlefield. There is, as well, a need to deter any resumption of aggression, and towards the fulfillment of this need the US will surely contribute its fair share. Finally, should a crisis develop in Bosnia in which American forces were vital to maintaining the peace, I have no doubt the President would order them to return. After all, it was George Bush who last year prevailed on his fellow Republicans in Congress to defeat legislation that would have required a withdrawal of American forces.

The American deployment in Kosovo is another matter. There, the conflict is still such as to require military forces and the substantial withdrawal of America's Nato contingent could endanger the fragile balance that has kept incidents of violence from igniting another war. It is notable that nothing in the leaked discussion paper suggests the US is about to leave Kosovo.

If a modest reduction in the level of American forces deployed in Bosnia sounds the alarm in Europe, what should we make of the Blair-Chirac fantasy that the EU will soon be poised to go it alone when there's trouble in Europe?

On his recent visit to Camp David, Tony Blair was at pains to dispel any notion that the misadventure at St Malo, like the words of the Nice agreement, meant any lessening of the central role of Nato in maintaining the peace in Europe.

In his effort to gain American approbation for the EU's ambition to develop its separate defence identity, the Prime Minister assured President Bush that the mumbo-jumbo written down between the opening aperitif and the closing liqueur at French costal resorts would enhance rather than diminish the centrality of Nato. Reflecting on those assurances in an interview with Winston S Churchill in The Sunday Telegraph, Secretary of Defence Don Rumsfeld observed that "the Devil is in the detail".

"We will be watching carefully to see how things evolve," Mr Rumsfeld said. For, like President Bush, the Secretary of Defence understands that what is done to effect a European Defence Initiative is far more important than what is said. It is the character of concrete arrangements rather than the characterisation of them that matters.

The American administration is waiting to see whether Mr Blair will shape French policy towards European defence - or be shaped by it. No one seriously believes that French policy, which aims to minimise American influence in Europe and the world by minimising Nato, remotely resembles Mr Blair's description of British policy. It is the texts elaborately negotiated at St Malo and Nice - not some "poison" in the form of briefings from Iain Duncan-Smith - that has caused concern.

Dealing with that concern may well mean that Mr Blair will have to disappoint Mr Chirac as he makes good on his promises to President Bush - promises the President chose to accept by returning the ball to the Prime Minister's court.

It will not be easy for Mr Blair. It is almost impossible to imagine a convincing strategy for stability in Europe that does not entail a robust Nato presence. The French concept of the EU acting alone in some theoretical situation that Nato is unwilling to confront will not stand scrutiny. If the challenge is too small to engage the whole of Nato, it cannot merit the creation of a new institution. If it is of sufficient gravity to require a serious commitment of military power, with its attendant risks and hazards, it will almost certainly need Nato's full capability.

So we'll make sure the Americans going home from Bosnia take their return tickets with them. Just in case they're needed.

The author is a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a former Assistant Secretary of Defence in the Reagan administration


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