The Washington Times
June 12, 2001
Alan Dowd

When George W. Bush enters the summit room at NATO headquarters on June 13, he will be seeking to persuade his European counterparts that it´s time to build an international defense against ballistic missiles - a tricky and expensive enterprise that European leaders would rather avoid altogether. The Europeans, on the other hand, will be seeking iron-clad assurances from the new president that Washington has no plans to pull out of the Balkans - also a tricky and expensive enterprise that U.S. leaders, including some in the Bush White House, would rather avoid altogether.

But what appears as an impasse may turn out to be an opportunity for Mr. Bush. A grand trans-Atlantic compromise is within reach, but only if Mr. Bush and his European counterparts take stock of history.

The history books would tell Mr. Bush that the sooner he pays attention to the Balkans, the better - for Europe and his administration.

In one of those books, "A World Transformed," the first President Bush offers a stern admonishment about America´s role in Europe: "The United States bears a disproportionate responsibility for peace in Europe and an obligation to lead NATO."

If only he had taken his own advice as Yugoslavia came apart in 1991. Rather than leading NATO into Bosnia, the elder Bush averted his gaze from the carnage. Without American leadership, Western Europe drifted and Slobodan Milosevic set his sights on other conquests.

Bill Clinton continued the policy of benign neglect in the Balkans for two years. As Bosnia hemorrhaged, American credibility in other parts of the world suffered and NATO began to buckle under the weight of ancient intrigues. Only after the United States entered Bosnia´s killing fields did the war end. Today, NATO is enforcing an armistice that has held for almost six years - longer than the war itself lasted.

Likewise, it was U.S. leadership that made the difference in Kosovo. Because NATO acted, all 850,000 Kosovars are home - the only case in modern history where a systematic removal of ethnic groups has been reversed. Mr. Milosevic is locked up, and the region´s other troublemakers have been exposed for what they are - not freedom fighters, but irredentists driven by myth and legend to kill and conquer.

Mr. Clinton understood little about foreign policy and cared about it even less. But by leading NATO into the Balkans, he heeded his predecessor´s advice. With the Cold War melted away, he realized that keeping the peace in Europe would be impossible without keeping the peace in Europe´s most dangerous neighborhood - the former Yugoslavia. And as Bosnia and Kosovo and now Macedonia remind us, that´s impossible without U.S. leadership.

Given his dubious record, it´s difficult for conservatives to credit Mr. Clinton for his Balkan policy. But just as a bad gardener can sometimes raise a good crop, so too can a bad president sometimes develop and execute a good policy. The younger Bush would do well to keep that in mind as he evaluates NATO´s Balkan mission.

However, that is only half the pre-summit history lesson. A review of history would remind the Europeans that there is no easy road to freedom or peace.

In 1977, Moscow began deploying the first of 654 SS-20 missiles in Central Europe. From the plains of Czechoslovakia and forests of East Germany, the SS-20s could hit virtually any city in Western Europe in just 15 minutes. Their very existence threatened to cut the NATO alliance in two, which, of course, was Moscow´s main objective.

A handful of NATO leaders recognized the threat and agreed on a response that would be both costly and risky - the deployment of some 670 modern, medium-range missiles of their own in Western Europe.

By November 1983, NATO was deploying U.S. Pershing IIs in West Germany and Tomahawk cruise missiles in Britain and Italy. As the missiles arrived, the protests began in Bonn, London and Washington. As Time magazine howled amidst the missile buildup, "There is a grave danger, if not of war tomorrow, then of a long period of angry immobility in superpower relations."

War never came, and that "long period" lasted a mere four years. In fact, by 1987 the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty would begin to dismantle those missiles lining the Iron Curtain. Not coincidentally, by 1989 the Iron Curtain itself was dismantled.

The missile threat no longer comes from Central Europe, but from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. And it´s just as real and just as deadly for NATO´s 19 members as it was in 1983. As Ronald Reagan said during NATO´s first missile showdown, "It may not be easy to see, but I believe we live now at a turning point. Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used." 

To hope for the best and prepare for the worst this has always been NATO´s unspoken motto. But if America pulls out of the Balkans or if Europe blocks a missile defense, the alliance will be doing the very opposite. And NATO´s leaders will miss a prime opportunity to cut a no-lose deal.