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PERSPECTIVE ON BOSNIA

Stick With the Task Until It's Done

The political promise to pull out in 1998 doesn't square with the pledge to leave behind a unified, relatively secure nation.

May 02, 1997|LEE H. HAMILTON | Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee

The United States wants no part of a quagmire in Bosnia. Clinton administration officials have proclaimed loud and clear that they expect U.S. troops to leave Bosnia on schedule, at the end of the current mandate in mid-1998. This is also the view in Congress. In fact, some in Congress have proposed cutting off funding for U.S. troops in Bosnia beyond Sept. 30. Though unlikely to pass, this idea creates further pressure to leave Bosnia early next year.

This is the wrong signal to send at the wrong time. Establishing a sustainable peace in Bosnia will take a long time--not simply another 15 months. Putting a date-certain on a U.S. withdrawal only plays into the hands of hard-line opponents of peace, who believe they only have to wait us out before resuming the war. If we have any hope of achieving our objective--a unified Bosnia--we should not rule out staying beyond next June as part of a new, smaller NATO force, although preferably not with ground troops. At the very least, the administration should tone down its rhetoric and dampen expectations of a quick pullout.

While Bosnia may be off the front page, the United States has become the central player in the peace effort. U.S. officials hold most of the key positions in the peace implementation process. We are leading the effort to sort out the stalemate in the pivotal city of Brcko, a process that won't be completed until next March. We are the driving force behind the organization of local elections, scheduled for September. We are the most visible presence in Sarajevo. We are the lead advocate of the Muslim-Croat Federation on whose behalf we are carrying out a congressionally mandated, half-billion-dollar effort to train and equip its armed forces.

By most accounts, the United States is the only party in the region respected by all three sides, and therefore the key to stability. The Europeans cannot and will not do the job themselves.

Yet the task is far from finished. There is a general consensus that reconstruction in Bosnia will be a long-term process. For example, significant numbers of refugees will not return to ethnically cleansed areas before the end of the current NATO mandate. Local officials to be elected in September will by early 1998 just be starting to return to govern areas from which they were forced out five years ago.

It is incomprehensible to our allies and to the people of Bosnia that with these key tasks unfinished, and with most key decisions in U.S. hands, the United States would leave next year. Yet that is U.S. policy and it is creating unrealistic pressure to show as much progress as possible by mid-1998. It also has created tensions with our allies, who take a long-term and more realistic approach to the problems of implementing the Dayton agreement.

Current Bosnia policy doesn't match our goals and expectations. If we are serious about getting our troops out in mid-1998, then we should scale back our political involvement and lower our expectations. This means accepting, at best, a drift toward partition of Bosnia, and, at worst, a possible resumption of war.

But if the Clinton administration does not want partition or war, it should change its exit strategy. We need to consider scenarios for a post-1998 U.S. presence that would be acceptable to U.S. allies, who do not want to stay behind in Bosnia if the U.S. leaves. This could mean a limited, continued U.S. participation, with few or no troops on the ground in Bosnia. The U.S. could continue to provide logistical and intelligence support within Bosnia and maintain a backup, rapid-reaction force in Hungary.

If a unified Bosnia is our preference, we will have to pay the price and be prepared to stay there longer. If a mid-1998 pullout is the overriding concern, we should scale back our expectations and our rhetoric, and prepare the American people for the likelihood of the partition of Bosnia, and the possibility of more war.

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