Memo to Bush: Kosovo Is a Hotel California

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Governor Bush certainly has a point about U.S. troops in the Balkans — Kosovo is a mess, and there's no exit strategy. Slobodan Milosevic may be gone, but his replacement has no plans to let go of Yugoslavia's internationally recognized claim to sovereignty over the territory. And the men who fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army have no intention of recognizing that claim. NATO's dream of a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo remains just that — take the troops out, and Serbs and ethnic Albanians could be back at war in days, and it looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future. And Bush wants no part of a permanent deployment, which is why he's promising to bring the troops home and let the Europeans keep the peace. (Which, of course, they’re already doing, supplying some three quarters of the peacekeeping force.)

That would make sense, of course, if Bush was opposed to the Kosovo intervention per se. But he isn't. The governor wants to have it both ways. When asked in the debates if he would have used force in the Kosovo crisis, he replies in the affirmative, criticizing the administration only for taking the option of ground troops off the table. The U.S. could not stand back, he says, when called on by its NATO allies to help. That wouldn't be good for alliances. But Bush's reasoning is a little specious: Washington was not called on by its NATO allies to get involved in Kosovo; the U.S. led its NATO allies into the war. It's unlikely that the Europeans would have picked a fight with Milosevic's army without the U.S. leading from the front. For one thing, the Europeans don't have the air power to have conducted the campaign alone.

So while Bush is correct in pointing out that the current deployment has no exit strategy, he's not providing a clear alternative. Of course, the Europeans could probably, if pressed, come up with another 4,500 troops to fill the gap the Americans left. But numbers aren't really the point. The U.S. presence in KFOR sends a message that anyone who tangles with the peacekeepers will have to answer to the world's only superpower. Withdrawing them signals that Washington is no longer particularly interested in deploying its own military to keep the Balkans' tribal factions apart — and that would certainly embolden the hard men on both sides. So, if Bush would deploy massive force once again if hostilities resumed, it's not clear why keeping a handful of peacekeeping troops garrisoned in Kosovo places an unacceptable strain on the U.S. military's resources. After all, the military's function, according to Bush's mantra, is "to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening." And that's exactly what the White House would say those peacekeeping troops are doing in the Balkans.