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To Prevail in Bosnia Keep U.S. Troops There

September 28, 1997|Charles A. Kupchan | Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, was on the staff of the National Security Council for the first year of the Clinton administration

WASHINGTON — Bosnia may not be finished after all. With the help of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's muscle, Biljana Plavsic, the elected president of Bosnia's Serb Republic, is gaining power at the expense of extremist voices. Radovan Karadzic, a rabid nationalist and key architect of the war that carved up Bosnia, grows increasingly isolated and weak. Plavsic's outmaneuvering of Karadzic provides the first ray of hope since the end of the war that a moderate Serb center may emerge and a multiethnic Bosnia may survive even after the peacekeepers have gone home.

The task of consolidating a stable Bosnia is, however, just beginning. Plavsic is no angel. She has moderated her nationalist rhetoric to advance her political fortunes, not because she has discovered tolerance. Estrangement among Bosnia's Muslims, Croats and Serbs still runs deep, as the recent local elections revealed. It will take time for communal ties to repair and for trust to displace hatred--time Bosnia may not have.

Even if political currents in Bosnia continue in the right direction, it is by no means clear that politics in the United States will do so. Indeed, Congress keeps insisting that American troops leave Bosnia by the middle of next year. Hardly the message of resolve needed to buy time for reconciliation to proceed and to convince rabid nationalists to give up the fight. If President Bill Clinton is to take advantage of Plavsic's ascendance and help guide Bosnia toward a stable peace, he will have to navigate the shoals of America's domestic politics, not just those of the Balkans. Before the current window of opportunity closes, Clinton needs to make clear to Bosnians and Americans alike that the United States is in it for the long haul.

U.S. politics have in two ways hampered effective implementation of the Dayton accords. First, fear of U.S. casualties played a prominent role in restricting the mission of NATO troops. Arresting war criminals, protecting refugees returning to their homes and helping to rebuild intercommunal ties were too ambitious. NATO succeeded in keeping the peace, but only by maintaining separation among the parties that ultimately must learn to live alongside each other if Bosnia is to remain intact. Second, Congress' insistence on a fixed date for the departure of U.S. troops has undermined NATO's leverage. Why should the parties in Bosnia make earnest efforts toward a lasting peace if the carnage is likely to begin should U.S. troops leave next summer?

The U.S. interests at stake require that Clinton challenge Congress head-on. Contrary to Congress' expectations, the United States would not be able to watch from the sidelines if U.S. troops quit Bosnia and the war begins again. The risk of a widening conflict and the return of ethnic cleansing will, as they did before, necessitate U.S. intervention. Peace in the heart of Europe is of direct interest to Americans; that's why U.S. troops are in Bosnia to begin with. It makes far more sense to finish the job of building a stable peace now than to start again after another round of bloodshed.

So, too, would a retreat from Bosnia make a mockery of America's plans for enlarging NATO. If all goes according to plan, the U.S. Senate will ratify treaty-based defense guarantees to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the same time it oversees the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bosnia. The Senate simply cannot have it both ways. Clinton needs to make clear to Congress that peace in Europe's center is either worth American lives or it is not.

Also at stake in Bosnia is the future of European integration, an experiment whose success is in America's interest. The more vital and coherent the European Union, the more the United States can count on the transatlantic link.

But the EU is struggling as it seeks to introduce a single currency and absorb new members from Central Europe. It cannot afford the unraveling of peace in Bosnia. When it tried on its own to resolve the Balkan conflict in the war's early years, the EU was paralyzed. It would stumble again, perhaps irreparably, were Bosnia to descend into war once more. For the sake of European integration, as well as for Bosnia, U.S. troops should stand by their European counterparts in the Balkans.

Well aware of the pressing interests at stake in Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has already challenged Congress on the scope of NATO's mission. Under their new mandate, NATO troops have arrested indicted war criminals, worked to neutralize the security forces that have been the backbone of Karadzic's power and seized transmitters used to broadcast nationalist propaganda and whip up ethnic hatred. NATO must keep up its activism if momentum is to continue turning against extremist voices.

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