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Americans already knew: No exit plan from Bosnia

Before Gen. Hugh Shelton was sworn in as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a senator asked him if he had an "exit strategy" for getting our troops out of Bosnia.

"Nope," he said. Or a few hundred well-chosen words to that effect.Such honesty is refreshing, coming from Washington. It is a rare day when people inside Washington come right out and say things that are woefully apparent to those of us outside Washington.

When President Clinton sent American troops to Bosnia he promised to bring them home again by last Christmas. Nobody in America believed that would happen. And it didn't happen.

Last Christmas came and went. The warring ethnic factions in Bosnia greeted the season with sentiments of chaos on earth, bad will towards men. Just like everybody outside of Washington knew they would.

After all, nobody outside Washington had much faith in the famous Dayton Peace Accords. Everybody out here questioned the sincerity of the Dayton Peace Process.

Most of the high-level plumbers and bus drivers I spoke to figured this way: If you lock a bunch of Bosnian diplomats in a hanger in Dayton, Ohio, and tell them they can't leave until they agree to be nice, they'll agree to be nice.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a high-level bartender about the prospects of peace in the troubled Balkans.

"What do you suppose will happen if we send troops to Bosnia but announce we're going to bring them home by Christmas?" I asked him.

"My guess is, they'll wait until after Christmas and then start shooting at each other again," he said. And this from a man whose only advanced degree was in computer mixology.

Eventually, Washington came around to the same line of thinking. So Washington pulled the kind of fast one only Washington can pull without getting arrested. It brought the troops home from Bosnia and left them there at the same time.

Lisa Hoffman, a writer for Scripps-Howard News Service, explained it this way:

"Clinton . . . pulled out a few thousand troops to demonstrate his resolve for a draw down, but left 8,000 there as part of a new mission dubbed a `follow-on' stabilization force."

This is the kind of shell game that always causes much knee-slapping and self-congratulation in Washington. But out here in the saner heartland nobody was fooled. Most of us clung to the stubborn belief that the presence of troops in Bosnia was a sure sign they hadn't left.

So the president made another promise. He promised to bring the troops home by next June. I raced back to my high-level bartender for an analysis of this turn of events.

"Well," he said. "My opinion now is that the Bosnians will wait until after next June to start shooting at each other again. But the delay will put them in a bad mood and they won't be as nice to us."

Washington must have sensed this, too. For now we hear that even if we bring the troops home from Bosnia in June, they will still be there. Hoffman predicts that the "follow-on" force may transform itself into a "deterrent force" of about 3,000 U.S. troops. That way, Washington will have brought the troops home twice, according to Washington thinking, and never according to the kind of thinking the rest of us are stuck with.

Of course, there's a drawback to this scheme. Sooner or later - say about the fourth of fifth time we bring the troops home from Bosnia - there may finally not be any troops left there.

What will we do if the Bosnians start shooting at each other then? Will we go back? Or just treat Bosnia like another Somalia and forget about it?

Gen. Shelton, the new top military boss, is going to have to play it by ear. That's unsettling to those of us who can remember past military adventures that have proved us tone-deaf.

Gen. Shelton's job was originally slated for Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston. But, in the midst of an obsession with military sex lives, it was revealed that Ralston had a brief adulterous affair a decade ago. So Washington rejected him.

Too bad. At least he had some experience with an exit strategy.