Cohen Plays Skeptic Role On Bosnia
By Bradley Graham
After months of resistance, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is moving toward reluctantly accepting the view of colleagues in the Clinton administration that U.S. troops must remain in Bosnia past a June 1998 deadline, his aides say.
But Cohen still declines to say so in public. As he prepares this week to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Cohen continues to play the public role of the administration's holdout on Bosnia, suggesting in an interview last week that unless European countries contribute more to peace particularly in funding and training an effective local police force he would be hard-pressed to endorse a renewed U.S. military mission.
"I've never operated on the basis of having a closed mind," Cohen said. "I can certainly accept some of the positive things that have been achieved [in Bosnia] and would not want to see them unraveled.
"But by the same token, I also want to see a lot more contribution coming from others before I would modify my own position to accommodate the European forces, who are there and demand that we stay there. So until that time, then obviously I'm going to still press my own views," he said.
Cohen said he would not discuss the evolution of his thinking before President Clinton makes a final decision about whether to extend the U.S. military operation. Aides said he hopes he can use his status as the administration's most public doubter on Bosnia as leverage with European allies. Without a greater European role, Cohen contends it would be difficult to persuade Congress to fund a continued U.S. military presence in Bosnia.
Cohen has been a consistent skeptic about the value of keeping U.S. troops in Bosnia beyond the scheduled 2 1/2 years. Taking office in January, he said that prolonging the U.S. mission past June 1998 was neither politically sustainable nor affordable. As a general rule, he does not want U.S. forces doing police work or becoming overextended in peace operations.
Still, Cohen's differences with his fellow Cabinet members over the U.S. military role in Bosnia have been unusual for a foreign policy team that has rarely betrayed signs of internal dissent. By all accounts, Cohen has worked hard to make a successful transition from a longtime career as a Republican legislator with a reputation for independence to his new supporting role in a Democratic administration.
Senior administration colleagues give Cohen high marks for the knowledge and political judgments he brings to policy debates and the energy he devotes to maintaining ties to Capitol Hill. He won enthusiastic White House praise lately for his firm response to Iraq's interference with international weapons inspectors and his ability to dramatize the threat posed by Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological agents, using a five-pound sugar bag as a metaphor for anthrax and glass vials of air to illustrate the deadly effect of tiny amounts of poison VX gas.
At the Pentagon, Cohen has taken measured steps toward reshaping U.S. forces to fit a new vision of future warfare. He also has tackled the department's bloated civilian bureaucracy, announcing plans to consolidate various offices and shrink the defense agencies. He has stood firm against fierce congressional opposition to closing more military bases and has set in motion several studies and mechanisms to deal with the troubled area of relations between the sexes in the ranks.
Aside from Bosnia, the only major issue on which Cohen has stood apart in the Cabinet involved economic sanctions against Burma, which he opposed to little avail. He argued for backing the conference of Southeast Asian countries, which objected to sanctions on grounds they would propel Burma further into the arms of the Chinese.
But the situation in Bosnia, with its large stakes for the United States and Europe, remains a particularly vexing problem for Cohen and the administration. It carries significant budgetary and operational implications for the Pentagon. It also highlights the personal challenge that Cohen faces reconciling his iconoclasm with the demands of subordinating his own views to those of the Democratic president he serves.
Cohen entered office with strong judgments, formed as a senator, about the U.S. troop presence in Bosnia. He declared during his confirmation hearing in January and repeatedly during a visit to Bosnia in March that U.S. soldiers would be gone by June 1998. As a former lawmaker, Cohen empathized with the frustration and anger expressed by members of Congress at Clinton's decision to let the original December 1996 withdrawal deadline pass, extending the deployment another 18 months.
Cohen warned from the start that U.S. political support for the Bosnia mission was eroding, that the Pentagon could not afford spending about $2 billion a year to keep troops in Bosnia, that Bosnians had to take responsibility for their own fate and that European governments must assume a greater share of the burden if some kind of international military presence were to remain.
But with the Europeans vowing to leave if the Americans did, a U.S. pullout has appeared increasingly unlikely. U.S.-European discussions about a follow-on force have focused less on whether the Americans will stay and more on whether the current U.S. contingent of 8,500 can at least be reduced, its mission narrowed and more of its existing tasks passed to Europeans who make up the rest of the 30,000 or so NATO-led peacekeepers.
In recent weeks, the president's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, has begun spelling out the rationale for a continued U.S. involvement, while stressing that Clinton has yet to make a decision. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright also has spoken of a government consensus developing for an extended U.S. stay, and Clinton has met with leading lawmakers to advance the idea of a continued U.S. commitment to enforcing the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
When Cohen meets this week with his European counterparts in Brussels, he said he will make the point that Congress still can deny funding for an extension if it is dissatisfied with the European contribution to the Bosnia mission. The 1998 defense authorization bill that Clinton recently signed blocks funds for U.S. troops in Bosnia past June, although it permits a waiver if the president makes the case for one.
"I think the Europeans many times operate on the assumption that, well, the United States will still be there, whatever the circumstances," Cohen said. "What my interest has been is to dissuade them of that, to make it very clear as a former member understanding how Congress thinks about this.
"My view is that there should be an international presence to maintain stability in Bosnia. What role the United States should play will depend a great deal on what I see forthcoming out of many countries, before the United States makes any kind of a further commitment. And that's about as clear as I'm going to get with you."
Cohen said his own resistance during the year to keeping troops in Bosnia helped forestall a serious confrontation between Congress and the administration by reassuring lawmakers that their concerns were being heard. Cohen also said his persistent emphasis on the June deadline altered the thrust of discussions with the Europeans.
"We had the Europeans saying, `We're all in together, out together,' " Cohen said. "We've changed that around, saying: `Wait a minute, what are the goals here? Who is making what contribution? Why haven't you measured up to your contribution? . . . Where is the money? Why aren't you putting police in here?' "
Cohen's senior colleagues credit him with helping focus on what needed to be done before June 1998 to galvanize lagging civil reconstruction efforts in Bosnia.
"He articulated a fairly strong position, in part because I think that reflected his thinking, and in part because I think he felt it important to make the deadline meaningful for our allies and perhaps for us," said a White House official who asked not to be named. "In that respect, I think it was quite useful. Our allies suddenly felt, `My God, maybe the Americans won't stay.' As a result, a lot has happened."
Said another official who attends high-level meetings with Cohen: "I don't think he's changed his mind about keeping troops in Bosnia. He still says we can't have the military do every civil implementation function. But I think his position has evolved to the point where, you know, the commander-in-chief is moving in a certain direction, and Cohen must implement that policy and that's it."
Another person who has discussed Bosnia with Cohen said the defense secretary harbors some nagging concerns about the viability of the Dayton peace accords as the continuing basis for the international assistance effort.
Asked whether the allies still support Dayton's model of a multiethnic Bosnia, Cohen acknowledged a "differentiation of commitment" among them. He said adherence to Dayton remains U.S. policy "until such time as the president decides it should be otherwise," adding, "I think it's a desirable goal." But asked if he thought it was a realistic one, he said: "That remains to be determined."
For all his history in Congress as a political maverick and acolyte of conscience, Cohen said he recognized that when he moved to the administration, he would be "functioning in a very different environment" as a team member instead of "an independent, sovereign entity" representing Maine.
"I see my job now as bringing whatever talents to bear that I have, to bring those to the discussions, to serve the president, and to give him the best advice I can," he said. "And if I can't make the case, then I accept the consensus that evolves, unless it is so to me, it would be unacceptable under any circumstances. I have never found that to be the case . . . and don't expect to."
A senior administration official said Cohen and his small circle of top aides expend considerable effort attempting to stay in step with the White House.
"These guys think about it all the time," the official said.
Cohen attends a weekly lunch with Berger and Albright and a weekly breakfast with them and several other senior officials. He also attends periodic "principal committee" meetings of the president's national security team.
Cohen said he welcomes the give-and-take at these sessions and enjoys his relations with other senior team members, insisting there have been few major disagreements. Other participants reported clashes earlier in the year between Cohen, on one side, and Albright and Bill Richardson, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, over the uses of troops in Bosnia and the timing of a drawdown. Differences are said to persist over the size and mission of a U.S. military contingent past June.
"There are always going to be institutional differences," Cohen said when asked about the disputes. "The president doesn't want yes people. He wants people who have strong viewpoints, who present them in a responsible, well-reasoned fashion. Then he has the benefit of this crosscurrent of intellectual content that he can draw from."
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