Editor’s note: This piece by Peter W. Rodman appeared in the Nov. 27, 1995, issue of National Review. Rodman, a former senior editor of National Review and senior Defense Department official, passed away Saturday after a fight with leukemia.
The President has dropped a red hot potato in the Republicans’ lap — U.S. troops in Bosnia. Shuttle diplomacy in September and October by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke produced a precarious ceasefire and agreement on a few general principles; real negotiations on the concrete terms of a peace settlement began on American soil on November 1, in the unlikely (but usefully secluded) setting of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. If the warring parties really do reach a final deal, NATO is pledged to send troops to police it.
Members of Congress learned about most of this in the newspapers, which only intensified an uproar that was probably inevitable anyway. The American public’s eagerness to send ground personnel to Bosnia is not evident, yet the Administration has committed itself to sending 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. troops as part of a total NATO force of 40,000 to 60,000. In the House, the GOP freshmen demanded that U.S. troops not be sent without congressional approval, and they wanted this requirement included in the defense appropriation bill; when the leadership dropped it in conference, the freshmen’s anger contributed to the stunning defeat of the whole bill. In the Senate, Bob Dole and nine colleagues wrote to the President on September 27 asking blunt questions about the mission, costs, and risks of the operation. Only then did the Administration begin consultations with Congress.
For a time, the Administration had put off the congressional importunings by arguing that there was no peace agreement yet: until the parties agree on a map, with clear “zones of separation” for peacekeepers to patrol, the troop question is moot. (Indeed, the State Department’s public prediction that a breakthrough in the talks will take only a “couple of weeks” to achieve is wildly optimistic.) But the Administration was disingenuous in making this argument, since NATO military commanders were already working feverishly on planning for the deployment, under the auspices of Supreme Allied Commander Gen. George Joulwan (a former aide to Alexander Haig in both Vietnam and the Nixon White House). In this case, interestingly, the U.S. military seemed to be putting aside all vestiges of its recent reluctance to get involved in ambiguous commitments; the “Powell Doctrine” was not being applied here. The Pentagon’s officially expressed hope, in fact, was to be ready to deploy the peacekeepers “within days” of an agreement. “IFOR” (for “implementation force”) was the latest Washington buzzword. The Administration’s excuse for not talking to Congress was wearing pretty thin.
Hearings were finally held in both the Senate and the House in mid October, with the Administration fielding its top brass: Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili. They were bombarded by hostile questions from legislators of both parties — especially when they insisted that the President really didn’t need Congress’s support and was prepared to send troops anyway. The uproar over this was quelled only when the President agreed, in a letter to Senator Robert Byrd on October 19, to seek an “expression of support” from Congress.
As of now, the votes aren’t there. The leadership has been careful not to close the door, but the rank and file are adamantly opposed to sending troops. This was demonstrated on October 30, when the House voted by the lopsided margin of 315 to 103 for a (non-binding) resolution declaring that a) in the negotiations at Dayton “there should not be a presumption” that U.S. ground troops will participate and b) the President should not send troops without congressional approval. Nearly half the Democrats voted for it too. Speaker Gingrich correctly labeled this a ringing vote of no-confidence in the President. A large group of House members led by Joel Hefley (R., Colo.) have introduced another bill, which would cut off all funding for any Bosnia deployment. That one would be binding.
The Administration faces an uphill struggle. First, it has to get the warring parties to agree on a map (over which, after all, they have been fighting for a few hundred years). Second, it has to convince Republicans (and Democrats) that the resulting deal is both fair to the Bosnians and durable enough to risk sending troops for. Conceivably, if there is a peace agreement, the President will regain some leverage: Congress, if it votes no, will then stand accused of undermining NATO solidarity and the last best chance for peace, and will be saddled with responsibility for whatever mess ensues in Bosnia.
In the short term, the Republicans have taken refuge in demanding a set of conditions — robust rules of engagement for U.S. forces; NATO rather than UN command; Russian participation limited to a subordinate role; etc. Congress also wants some hard answers about cost — which the Pentagon estimates at $1 to $2 billion — and how to pay for it. But the Administration may be able to meet most of these conditions.
If the Republicans go this route — that is, setting conditions rather than trying to ban the deployment outright — the trickiest issue will be the demand from some respected conservatives (e.g., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz) that we lift the arms embargo, and arm and train the Bosnians, to bolster the peacetime balance of forces and ensure a durable Bos- nia. How far the Administration can accommodate this demand remains to be seen. The Pentagon has hinted at favoring at least training for Bosnians, to be done ostensibly by “private contractors” while U.S. troops carry out their role as neutral peacekeepers. The contradictions in all this will need to be ironed out, to put it mildly. Meanwhile, the British and French continue to gag at the idea of lifting the arms embargo, and this may be enough to blow away the NATO solidarity which the deployment is supposed to be repairing.
The Republicans were right to ask for a congressional vote. It’s not a legal requirement (the War Powers Act is a constitutional abomination), but it is a political requirement whenever a big or risky commitment is undertaken. In foreign-policy terms, too, a U.S. commitment in this day and age has a lot more credibility and sustainability if it has congressional backing.
The outcome is now totally up in the air. Three scenarios are in the range of the plausible. First, if the President can produce a decent agreement and make the case for the NATO solidarity, the mood might change and Congress might conceivably support it (under the strict conditions outlined). A second scenario — if the present momentum builds to cut off all funding for any deployment — is a presidential veto (which he could probably sustain) fol- lowed by his dispatch of troops in the face of congressional opposition. Or, third, the Congressional leadership may head off a vote on any binding legislation, steering it toward the non-binding variety — again, freeing the President to act on his own. Sending troops without the political safety net of congressional support would compound all the President’s risks, both in Bosnia and at home. But that’s where he may end up.