The Washington Times
Kosovo, more or less from the moment the issues there became critical in the fall of 1998, has not exactly been Congress’ finest hour. The nadir, perhaps, came a year ago during NATO’s air campaign itself, when the House of Representatives voted within a short span not to support the campaign and to double funding for it. The main casualty here was the House’s credibility. A year later, the Senate may be getting set to damage its own credibility, once again over Kosovo.
This time the vehicle is an amendment to a military construction bill that would force the withdrawal by July 1, 2001 of the 5,900 U.S. troops currently serving as part of a 39,000-member NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo -unless Congress specifically authorizes a longer presence. The amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia and Sen. John Warner, Republican of Virginia, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a lopsided 23-3 vote last week.
With all due respect to the senators and to their bipartisan inclinations, the support for the Byrd-Warner amendment is not a result of some overdue crystallization of Senate sentiment on Kosovo. Rather, it is the fact that the amendment has become a catch-all for the expression of a variety of grievances about Kosovo, the Balkans, Europe, NATO and American engagement writ large. Some of these grievances are perfectly legitimate. But in the blunt instrument of the Byrd-Warner amendment, the Senate risks an outcome that would do little to address the genuine concerns while at the same time causing serious damage.
The serious concerns are two. First, the administration has done a poor job of explaining, to the Senate and the American people, what the long-term goals of our policy in Kosovo and the Balkans actually are. Second, Kosovo raises legitimate questions about burden sharing within the alliance.
But Byrd-Warner is a lousy vehicle for making either of these points. The administration’s inadequate explanations notwithstanding – at times, the peace has seemed almost as politically erratic as the conduct of the war was -certain things are perfectly clear about Kosovo. First of all, Kosovo is at the center of U.S.-European relations now, and it is going to be there for some time to come. NATO faced an outbreak of barbarism on its doorstep. Although the fate of the former Yugoslavia is a more urgent European interest than American, the United States has 10 years of policy history of its own in the fracturing Balkans and an even longer history of commitment to engagement in Europe. Among other things, this means taking our allies’ needs seriously. No one can legitimately pretend not to have realized that dealing with the Balkans was going to be a long haul. And while we certainly have choices in how we deal with the Balkans – which the administration should indeed do a better job explaining – we do not really have the choice of not dealing with the Balkans.
As for burden sharing, the U.S. dominance of the military operations over Kosovo demonstrated once again that European governments need to do more militarily. But we cannot will that outcome into being by terminating our own engagement. Peacekeeping ultimately rests on power, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not that European troops couldn’t take the place of American troops on the ground in Kosovo. It’s that European power can’t take the place of American power in the overall political-military equation there. American withdrawal does not empower Europe; it creates a vacuum. There are many truly abhorrent characters in the Balkans who would welcome a July 1, 2001 date for the sudden appearance of a vacuum – Slobodan Milosevic first among them. They would probably even be perfectly happy to nurse their ambitions quietly until then.
If the Byrd-Warner amendment ventilates two legitimate concerns, albeit inadequately, it also serves as a stalking horse for some truly dubious foreign policy propositions. Mr. Byrd himself, for example, seems to verge on holding the highly eccentric view that presidents can’t send troops abroad without Congress’ explicit authorization. Such an outlook presupposes congressional dominance over the executive branch of a kind that hasn’t been seen since the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.
Byrd-Warner also serves for some as a false flag flying over isolationist sentiment – an opportunity to vent discontent with a whole range of American commitments without openly stating the general case. For some, setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kosovo has nothing whatsoever to do with Kosovo; it’s just the opportune application of a general principal of disengagement to a particular case.
Finally, there is the problem on display in the House a year ago. Achieving coherence in foreign policy is no small thing even for the executive branch, where there is unified authority in the person of the president. For Congress, it’s even harder. The deadline in the Byrd-Warner amendment seems clear enough. But a deadline for withdrawal is not a policy. It’s an anti-policy. It says that as of the date specified, we don’t care what happens. If that sentiment is ever powerful enough to override a presidential veto, we are going to have a world of trouble on our hands.