Let Europe Do It, Please

Everyone agrees. If it weren't for the Americans, NATO wouldn't be sending yet another mission to the Balkans. The peace plan crafted between Macedonians and Albanians is the result of intense U.S. diplomatic pressure, coming after months of failed European efforts. And Albanian guerrillas promised to surrender their weapons only if the United States was on the ground to help guarantee the deal. Yet as NATO deployed last week, Americans were conspicuous by their absence. The bulk of the force was British, commanded by a Danish general. Their numbers were bolstered by Greeks, French and Czechs, relative newcomers to NATO. Germans may be there, too, after a tough vote in the Bundestag, prompting one NATO expert to puckishly compare Berlin's reluctance to that of the Americans: "The Germans don't want to do anything because they don't want to kill. The Americans don't want do anything because they don't want to be killed."

What's going on? The United States provided the main body of NATO forces in Bosnia. It called the shots in Kosovo. Now comes Macedonia, and where are the Americans? "That's a hard one to answer," says Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman. "It's not really about numbers." Translation: when it comes to the mission in Macedonia, America is there--but not really. Some 500 U.S. soldiers are already on the ground, mostly providing logistical support for the forces in Kosovo. But no more than 200 will be assigned to Operation Essential Harvest, and most of them will keep doing pretty much what they are doing now. America's role in Macedonia, in other words, is more symbolic than real.

That's just the way the administration wants it. Initially, the White House sought no involvement at all. But Secretary of State Colin Powell argued strongly that the mission's credibility required at least a token U.S. presence--and token it will be, even apart from numbers. According to the Pentagon, the United States has agreed to lend some heavy-duty Chinook helicopters to transport arms collected from the rebels. Other than that, European forces will be largely on their own. The United States refused to offer close air support across the border from Kosovo should the Macedonia mission get in trouble; it even has dragged its feet on offering the support of its Kosovo logistics team.

Not everyone thinks this lack of engagement is bad. The message is clear, suggests Paddy Ashdown, former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats and an authority on Balkan military affairs. "America is saying what it was bound to say sooner or later: this is Europe's game, so Europe should get on with it." The idea that Europe should take charge in the Balkans is hardly new, of course. But with Macedonia it has, for the first time, begun to jell. It is a litmus test, in important ways, for Europe's willingness (and capability) of taking on such military missions in the future.

Macedonia will also be a test of who among the Europeans should lead. So far, the British seem most willing. Though small, the British military has wide experience with peacekeeping operations, from Northern Ireland to East Timor and Sierra Leone. And British troops have taken on the hardest jobs in the Balkans, from spearheading the 1995 NATO intervention in Bosnia to arresting war criminals and policing many of the most troubled areas of Kosovo. This spring, when Macedonia pleaded with NATO to seal the border against guerrillas from Kosovo, it was the British, backed by Scandinavians, who took on the job.

Yet Macedonia also reveals obvious limits to Europe's leadership. "Previous experience in the Balkans clearly proves that the [warring parties] only see an international force as credible if it has U.S. participation," writes Zoran Kusovac in Jane's Defence Weekly. Perhaps so, but another fact is also clear. Europe's mission in Macedonia may succeed or fail. Either way, the Bush administration will likely consider itself right for letting the Europeans go it alone.