The United States in the Balkans: There to Stay
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The Washington Quarterly 23.4 (2000) 157-170



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The United States in the Balkans:
There to Stay

Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon


As the first anniversary of NATO's victory against Serbia approached this past spring, Congress moved to memorialize the event by legislating a pullout of U.S. troops from the Kosovo peacekeeping operation that followed the successful conclusion of the war. Although the immediate effort to mandate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kosovo was narrowly defeated on the Senate floor, the debate in Congress suggested widespread unease on both sides of the aisle about the open-ended U.S. commitment to the Balkans. This growing unease reflects the pervasive belief on the Hill and elsewhere that an inadequate European effort in Kosovo after the war is needlessly prolonging the U.S. presence in the region. In some quarters, it also comes from a conviction that our allies needlessly interfered with, and prolonged, last year's air war. Finally, many members of Congress believe that, with the war over, Europeans should now be able to handle a problem that is, after all, in their backyard.

We reject these views on all counts. In some ways, they originate from a belief that the Balkans do not really matter to U.S. national interests--a belief we consider ill advised on strategic grounds. But in other cases, they are simply wrong factually. Whatever the faults of NATO's strategy prior to, during, and after the Kosovo war--and there were many--none of them can be blamed on the allies alone. At each step of the way, Washington was a willing participant--indeed, the dominant character--in the unfolding drama. U.S. armed forces deserve most of the credit for the military victory of Operation Allied Force, but U.S. policymakers deserve at least their fair share of the blame for mistakes made en route to that victory. If the allies [End Page 157] were reluctant to use force prior to the war, or proved unwilling to offer large forces for peacekeeping duty in case of a cease-fire agreement, the Clinton administration and Congress were at least as hesitant. And the strategy of gradual escalation during the war was primarily a U.S. invention. It suited the sentiment of most allies as well--that is true. But it was first and foremost a strategy made in the United States. As for the contributions to postwar Kosovo, Europe is carrying the lion's share of the economic and military burden in the region. That is as it should be, of course. But it needs to be recognized by more Americans than now understand, or care about, the real facts of the matter.

The U.S. effort in the Balkans--involving less than 20 percent of the total number of troops and about 10 percent of the economic aid costs--is neither large nor inappropriate. The United States is engaged there not because Europe is shirking its duty but because the stability and security of the region are of real U.S. interest. These interests are partly humanitarian, but they are at least as much strategic. For decades, the United States deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to safeguard the security of Western Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became possible to extend the stability and security that NATO countries long enjoyed to the rest of Europe--to build a Europe that was "whole and free" (in President George Bush's words) and "undivided, peaceful, and democratic" (as President Bill Clinton has urged). That is not just a noble sentiment, but a vision with deep strategic meaning. Such a Europe is more likely to be a partner of the United States in meeting the many challenges of the global age, and much less likely to pose a threat to U.S. interests.

At the height of the debate about the U.S. military presence in Kosovo in spring 2000, a number of members of Congress declared their unhappiness...


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