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Bosnia deadline a big mistake

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New Secretary of Defense William Cohen has been entirely too forceful in his repeated, public insistence that U.S. troops will be out of Bosnia in June 1998. He mistakenly dwelled on that deadline on his current European swing.

A successful pullout has always been predicated on two developments: that Bosnia would have a stable peace with durable institutions to keep that peace, which is highly problematic, and that the Europeans would shoulder the peacekeeping burden, which the defense ministers of Germany and Britain have now told Cohen they will not do.The Clinton administration has already set one deadline - last December - that proved unsustainable.

No one is arguing that the United States should make an open-ended commitment to Bosnia, but the exact timing of a pullout is our leaders' judgment and should not be tied to an arbitrary date.

The deadline, with a date-certain, was set for domestic political reasons. The defense secretary believes, rightly, that Bosnia is a European problem, but without U.S. leadership the Europeans seem inclined to do little about it; they have domestic political considerations of their own. Now, with Cohen saying the United States is leaving regardless, the British and the Germans say they're leaving, too.

Ambiguity and the uncertainty it arouses are useful weapons in international affairs. Uncertain of the peacekeepers' departure, the warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims are unlikely to bide their time until the day they can resume their killing unimpeded.

We should make them worry about what we're going to do rather than vice versa. But now we are the ones uncertain - uncertain of what will happen after June 1998.