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PERSPECTIVE ON BOSNIA : Chicken Little Goes to Bosnia : Objections to U.S. troops participating in a NATO peacekeeping force are based on unrealistic fears and superstitions.

David Gompert is a vice president of RAND and former senior director for Europe and Eurasia on the Bush Administration's National Security Council staff

The House has cautioned the President not to expect Congress to agree to include American troops in the NATO force that will police a Bosnian peace settlement. Fair enough. Because this issue could divide the country, the President would be wise to set aside his prerogatives and seek a political mandate. Congress will demand to know what the force’s main task will be--keeping the warring sides apart or keeping Bosnia together--and how the force can be removed without plunging Bosnia back into war.

Granting that the Administration must answer all the tough questions about the purposes, limits, costs and risks of sending American forces to Bosnia, the public and Congress, even those who would relish Bill Clinton’s political failure, should make no mistake about the consequences of a defeat for the President on Bosnia. With a peace agreement reached, say Administration officials, refusal to commit U.S. troops to the NATO peacekeeping force will cause the sky to fall. They are right.

The first casualty would be NATO itself, which would find itself without a mission, a leader, or a future. When the Cold War ended, the United States and its allies decided to keep NATO in place and American troops in Europe, having learned this century’s painful lesson: When the United States walked away from its role in Europe after World War I, back came war in Europe and back came the United States in World War II. But in the second half of the century, when the United States stayed in Europe, peace prevailed, the Cold War was won and American interests thrived.

Mindful of history, the United States renewed its commitment to European security at the Rome NATO summit in 1991, even as the Red Army streamed home. In 1992, at the urging of the United States, NATO announced that it was prepared to perform peacekeeping missions for the sake of security in Europe. Enforcing a settlement in Bosnia is precisely the sort of challenge we and our allies had in mind when these decisions were made to preserve NATO, retain an American military presence and use alliance capabilities to keep peace.

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If the alliance leader now fails to live up to these solemn undertakings, all bets are off. NATO’s main new mission will be nullified, leaving American military commanders to guess what their job is. Since the American troops in Europe will have no clear function, the consensus for keeping them there will crumble. And our allies--malign them if you like, but bear in mind they already have thousands of peacekeepers in Bosnia--will conclude that the United States does not, after all, accept responsibility to join in restoring security to Europe. The dormant idea of an independent European alliance, excluding the United States, will awake with a vengeance.

Because the very premise of NATO in the new era would be erased if the United States evades this call, such dire predictions are not farfetched. A Europe without NATO, a Europe without America, means a different world from the one that the United States has tried to create since the collapse of communism, under presidents of both parties and with broad public and congressional support. Those who say we have no important interest that would justify sending American peacekeepers to Bosnia should consider whether they would prefer that different world. While pundits might say fine, statesmen will think twice.

Even worse consequences are imaginable. If a peace agreement cannot be implemented because the United States declines to do its part, we will receive and deserve the blame for whatever happens. The Europeans will surely withdraw the forces they now have in Bosnia and the savagery of the last three years will resume and possibly spread. The United States might then need to enter in force, under truly perilous circumstances--just as we had to return to Europe after trying to escape our responsibility earlier this century.

Weighed against these dangers, the opponents’ case comes down to one point: the risk to American lives. They forget that this will not be a U.N. operation but a NATO operation, answerable to the supreme allied commander: an American general. If we lack faith in NATO to conduct military operations, we should have closed it down by now. In the event Americans are killed, we would not be callous to recall that we have all-volunteer armed forces, whose members have signed on to risk their lives in the nation’s interest. And with the $260-billion defense budget American taxpayers fund, our armed forces are hardly being asked to operate at a disadvantage.

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Most fears about American peacekeepers in Bosnia are superstitious caused by past failures, especially Vietnam and Somalia. The Administration cannot ignore these fears. Neither can Congress ignore that refusal to join and lead our NATO allies will earn it a special place in American history.


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