Bush Plays it Clinton-esque in Kosovo

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Bush is welcomed at the U.S. military base Camp Bondsteel

The term nation-building was bandied about with more than a hint of sarcasm when President Bush was bashing what he deemed the Clinton administration’s misguided use of the military abroad. And yet, as the President lunched with U.S. peacekeeping troops at Kosovo’s Camp Bondsteel and sought to reassure the world that — contra his campaign rhetoric — the U.S. had no intention of leaving the Balkans before its NATO allies do, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the Bush team has been forced to embrace the very policy of long-term peacekeeping they had been so quick to decry during the campaign.

President Bush made clear the U.S. troops weren’t coming home any time soon, and some of his aides put the word out to the media that creating conditions for their eventual withdrawal required the development of democratic institutions in the Balkans — a process that, in Washington shorthand, has come to be known as "nation-building."

Ironies aside, however, the fact that the Bush administration finds itself adopting the same position as the Clinton administration is based less on the efficacy of that policy, than on a common reluctance to either antagonize NATO allies by baling out on a mission originally initiated by Washington, or to deepen Western involvement.

The presence of Western peacekeeping troops in the Balkans has stabilized Bosnia and Kosovo (except, of course, for those unfortunate enough to belong to any of the territory’s non-Albanian minorities). But the nation-building project remains somewhat stillborn: democratic elections in the various ethnic cantons of Bosnia routinely return ultra-nationalist governments who show little interest in moving the territory towards any sort of multicultural melting pot. And in Kosovo, even though the moderate Ibrahim Rugova trounced the hawks of the erstwhile Kosovo Liberation Army at the polls in local elections, it is those hawks that continue to set the agenda by their cross-border military adventurism.

The brutal reality of the Balkans could be that democracy’s ability to eradicate the region’s tribal hatreds may be overstated. At the very least, it would appear that the existence of democratic institutions does not necessarily signal the dominance of a democratic, multiethnic political culture. And that would mean the nation-building project may be so long-term as to make the Balkan peacekeeping deployments a relatively permanent affair.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that President Bush has no taste for deepening that commitment. He made abundantly clear, for example, that Washington has no appetite for direct involvement in heading off the looming civil war in neighboring Macedonia. He simply urged all sides to return to the negotiating table and urged Kosovo’s Albanians to stay out of the fray. But renewed fighting in the town of Tetovo, sparked by rebel forces taking advantage of a Western-brokered cease-fire to occupy new territory, underlined doubts that NATO’s diplomacy — preemptive nation-building, if you like — will be sufficient to stop the slide into civil war. And that would likely force NATO in to pick up the pieces in yet another long-term "nation-building" operation.