Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

May 30, 2001

Multiplying Balkan Confusion

The best news relating to the Balkans is that there seems to be something of a split within the Bush administration over "peacekeeping" missions like the NATO deployment in Bosnia and other Balkan countries. The worst news is that at this point the most vocal, mediagenic and forceful figures in the administration seem to be on the side of – if not the status quo exactly, then of placating European NATO countries by maintaining American troops there for years to come.

A possible kicker in the equation is that American civilians sent to Bosnia seem to have put together a less-than-exemplary record in their tasks as police officers – or as overseers of local police with broad-ranging but somewhat murky lines of authority – although the Americans don’t seem to have been notably worse than police from other countries who have seen service in Bosnia more as a main chance than as an opportunity to establish anything resembling a civil society and a dispassionate, disinterested rule of law. While some American police veterans have performed with distinction, some have gotten involved in sex and financial scandals that reflect discredit on the entire operation.


Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, in Budapest for a meeting of NATO ministers, repeated reassurances that the United States and its putative European allies went into the Balkans together "and we’ll come out together." He claimed that within the Bush administration "there isn’t a big split on the issue" and noted that it could be years before American troops and civilian personnel come home from the Balkans.

The meeting is expected to announce modest reductions in the Bosnian peacekeeping force from about 21,000 troops to about 18,000. The United States currently "contributes" about 3,600 of those troops, more than any other single country (but less as a percentage than when the NATO troops arrived in the mid-1990s) and its detachment is expected to fall to about 3,100.

But both NATO leaders and Gen. Powell seem to agree that while further modest reductions are possible, they are not prepared to think about pulling NATO troops out altogether or even cutting back to a much more modest "monitoring" force until Bosnia has an effective police force and a functioning judicial system. We need a functioning system of law and order" in Bosnia, the American General, Joseph Ralston, who heads the mission, told the New York Times. "I want those conditions as soon as we can get them, but I don’t have a time frame for it."

Perhaps when the Sahara freezes over.


Mr. Powell says there isn’t that much of a split within the administration, but he had to address the issue because of recent comments from Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said that in his view NATO’s military job is done in Bosnia and that the military is being drawn into essentially civil tasks that are outside its mission and its area of competence. He and his allies within the administration are said to want American troops to come home sooner rather than later. Pentagon sources have said substantial cutbacks leading to an end of the military mission should begin in 6 to 18 months.

Rumsfeld has also questioned the deployment of some 900 U.S. troops in an American peacekeeping force in the Sinai and the use of US troops to train peacekeeping forces in Africa.

According to a story Sunday in the New York Times by Michael Gordon, "Mr. Rumsfeld’s skepticism toward peacekeeping appears to be part of a broader shift in thinking of Defense Department civilians that puts more emphasis on planning for major wars, and the development of new high-technology weapons to fight them, and less emphasis on relations with allies and the use of American forces to maintain order in a tumultuous post-cold-war world."


To Americans who are sick of war and the apparently untiring efforts of those who lead our particular state to keep the likelihood (and desirability?) of war ever in the forefront of American thinking, Mr. Rumsfeld’s apparent plans are hardly cause for solace. The defense secretary may want to reduce US commitments overseas, but he also wants (surprise, surprise!) to increase Pentagon spending. He seems to view China as a likely military rival in the near future, and wants the American military to be more agile, lethal, stealthy and high-tech to meet such challenges.

The fact that Mr. Rumsfeld spends so much time worrying about (and hyping) the putative Chinese military threat, as well as threats from terrorists suggests that he has not only an institutional but an ideological interest in preparing the American public for some future conflict with China. This is hardly the paradigm of war avoidance that most Americans would prefer as American policy.

It is likely, however, that whether the Rumsfeld-Powell split over the commitment in Bosnia is really as deep as some of the media have cracked it up to be, whatever split there is reflects a deeper split between what we might call nationalists and imperialists. The Rumsfeldians seem to want to concentrate on the military power of he United States as a nation capable of acting on its own should conflict or response to conflict be deemed advisable. The group we might call the Powellians in this context (though Mr. Powell himself has expressed doubts about peacekeeping missions in the past) seem to view the United States as the senior partner in a worldwide empire that includes NATO and other "advanced" countries working to put out brushfires and maintain what they are pleased to call "stability" in trouble-prone regions of the world.

This order-keeping function is more purely imperialistic than a focus on US military might. The Roman Empire, after it had conquered another country and declared it to be part of the empire, often stationed military garrisons in conquered countries, with both political and purely military functions. The main function was to keep the peace and prevent rebellion, which often included adapting Roman ideas about law and civil society to other countries. But the military was also capable of being notably brutal, and expected to be able to brutalize if the situation seemed to call for it.


The imperial idea in modern America is simultaneously more modest and more far-reaching than the old Roman model. The United States seldom feels a need to conquer countries and incorporate them into a formal imperial structure, though it is sometimes eager to engage in far-flung military adventures. But especially given the existence of the UN, NATO and other international political bodies, it hardly ever views any country as outside the proper sphere of influence of the United States and the "international community" of the wise and enlightened ones.

Thus a country doesn’t have to experience outright conquest to experience the intense attention of ambitious US and international policy makers. The "indispensable nation" views the entire world as its bailiwick now. It – or those within the government and the foreign policy constituent groups that adhere to a more internationalist view of matters – has little or no compunction about deciding that any country where trouble is brewing (or where the supply of natural resources might be in jeopardy) is a legitimate target of US intervention, whether papered over by some putatively multilateral international body or undertaken unilaterally by the United States.

Is an essentially nationalist view of the world – one that views the role of the US as the most powerful military force but essentially to protect and defend clear-cut US interests rather than being apostles of our brand of civilization and bringers of enlightenment to the benighted denizens of he rest of the world – somewhat less mischievous than the more internationalist view? Perhaps it is. But the Rumsfeldian desire to increase military spending when the United States already spends more on "defense" than the rest of the world combined is hardly a vision of a country determined to live at peace in the world.


Even if the nationalist view, at least the expansive and expensive Rumsfeldian model, is something less than Nirvana for peace-loving Americans, almost any critique of the peacekeeping model is worth encouraging. Indeed, it might be helpful if the Rumsfeld forces in the administration were more forthcoming and explicit in their discussion of the shortcomings of the tendency to want to keep garrisons of American troops in various foreign countries for indeterminate periods of time.

The almost unchallenged platitudes of Gen. Ralston about the need to keep international forces in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans deserve more skepticism. The basic notion that international forces can only be withdrawn when Bosnia, or Serbia or Kosovo or Macedonia has a working police force, an established rule of law and a peaceful society is deeply flawed.

Indeed, a case can be made that keeping US and other international forces in Bosnia (to take the example that seems to be somewhat in play) actually deters the development of a stable civil society, the rule of law and police forces that try to keep the peace rather than act as instruments of repression. As long as police personnel from other countries remain, the incentive to develop homegrown police forces is reduced. Why should Bosnians develop decent police forces while foreigners perform the functions, pay the bills and have a veto power over what the locals try to develop anyway?

The development of a civil society and decent police forces is often a matter of trial and error rather than the imposition of a master plan from above. Any country that tries to do so will make mistakes and experience periods of turmoil and unrest in the process. Unless they are free to keep trying without interference – from countries that (see Ramparts in Los Angeles and corruption in almost every major police force in this country) are less than perfect themselves – they will never have a prayer of getting it right.

The idea of waiting until the Bosnians have it down pat, then, could lengthen the time it takes for them to get it even partially right. And it’s a formula for a commitment with no end. No matter how well-developed Bosnia civil society eventually becomes (and I’d argue it will take longer with NATO troops papering over problems and subsidizing incompetence) it will never be perfect. There will always be problems that will justify a desire to keep the international forces in there for just a few weeks, months or years longer, until perfect stability can be guaranteed. In truth, perfect stability can never be guaranteed.


All this would be true if the peacekeeping and police forces in Bosnia and other countries were perfect models of integrity, competence, accountability and dispassionate desire to reinforce the rule of law in its most idealistic form.

Unfortunately, that hardly seems to be the case.

According to a piece Tuesday in the Washington Post, the U.N. police mission in Bosnia "has faced numerous charges of misconduct, corruption and sexual impropriety. But in virtually every case, the allegations have been hushed up by sending officers home, often without a full investigation, according to internal UN reports and interviews with US and European officials."

NATO and the UN decided to start sending police officers into Bosnia and there are about 1,832 of them there, including 161 officers from the United States. While many of those officers are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, enough are doing the opposite to raise legitimate concerns.

Some Americans have been accused of statutory rape, abetting prostitution and accepting gifts from Bosnian officials. It has apparently been more difficult to persuade first-rate American police officers to spend a year or two in Bosnia than it has been to persuade better police officers from some other countries.

The private company (Texas-based DynCorp) that has the $15 million annual contract to find and deploy police officials has had to go after reserve officers and retired officers. Some are too old or too out-of-shape to pass a physical.

Some have been downright corrupt.

Steve Smith, a former Santa Cruz officer who served as UN regional commander in Stolac, put it in a nutshell. "They’re making $85,000 in a place where everyone else is making $5,000 and they’re chasing whores, they’re shacking up with young women, and they’re basically just having a good time," Smith said. One American officer was fired after the UN accused him of paying $2.900 to acquire "ownership" of a prostitute he met in a Sarajevo brothel. Another allegedly began a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl. Six officers (two American, two British and two Spanish) were dismissed after "rescuing" 34 women from a brothel.

So the international officers (with honorable exceptions) hardly provide a model of integrity and devotion to duty for the locals to emulate. It would be better to pull them all out and let Bosnia be Bosnia (which would almost certainly be admittedly unpleasant for a while for many). But while some forces in the Bush administration seem to be skeptical, the odds of complete withdrawal any time soon are hardly favorable.

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