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Withdrawal symptoms

The contradictions coming from the Clinton administration this week over the scheduled departure of American troops from Bosnia would have been comic if preserving peace in the Balkans weren't so deadly serious.

After meeting with leaders on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ebulliently announced a developing consensus between Congress and the administration over a plan to extend the U.S. presence beyond the announced June 1998 withdrawal date. White House spokesman Mike McCurry later insisted that Albright had really said there was only the "prospect" of consensus. Defense Secretary William Cohen then declared the whole concept of consensus dead, claiming none had been reached at all.

The lack of consensus on consensus calls attention to more substantial problems with the Clinton administration's policy on Bosnia. The administration can't possibly set a rational schedule for withdrawing American troops until it finally decides once and for all what it expects our troops to accomplish before they leave. Ever since the 1995 Dayton accords, Clinton's Bosnia policy has been ambivalent, characterized by tenuous timetables, shifting strategies and inconsistent goals.

Congress worked with the president once before to extend the American mission in Bosnia when it appeared likely that the truce between Muslim, Serb, and Croatian combatants would crumble without continued American participation in the NATO operation. But lawmakers should not indulge the president again until he presents a cohesive vision for the remainder of the mission. Lawmakers should demand a realistic exit strategy that prevents the United States from becoming mired in the Balkans indefinitely.

That plan should include an acknowledgement that the unified Bosnia envisioned at Dayton is no longer likely to materialize. A permanent partition of the region may be inevitable, and NATO may be able to do little more than assure that the ethnic boundaries of a divided Bosnia are as peaceful and flexible as possible. To force the various factions to abide by the letter of Dayton, which calls for a Bosnia united under a single government, would be sending an invitation for future violence. It also would be an invitation for an indefinite American presence in Bosnia.

The president also should address NATO's failure to bring the region's indicted war criminals to justice. Their freedom presents a persistent obstacle to peace. The most notorious indictee, Radovan Karadzic, has used his freedom to harass elected officials and wage a war of intimidation against the general population. NATO forces cannot continue to go out of their way to avoid bringing Karadzic and others like him before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

The United States and its NATO allies have enforced a successful cease-fire, demobilized untold numbers of troops and weapons, rescued civilians and helped protect the integrity of Bosnian elections. They brought Bosnia back from the brink of destruction. And they have done so with a remarkable absence of casualties. The American people should be proud of those achievements. It is now up to President Clinton to present a plan that preserves those successes and allows American troops to leave in an orderly manner.