Commentary

Clinton’s “Bait And Switch” In Bosnia

“Bait and switch” has long been a favorite tactic of unethical merchants. The scheme involves luring customers into the store with an exceptionally low price on a product (the bait). When the unwary customers arrive, they are told that the product has been sold out but that another, higher priced, version would be an even better choice (the switch). Having already invested a good deal of time and gasoline, some customers fall for the ploy, even though in most jurisdictions bait and switch is considered fraud.

The Clinton administration’s Bosnia policy is the foreign policy equivalent of bait and switch. In December 1995 the president sent more than 16,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia as part of the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR). Presented with a fait accompli, a reluctant Congress endorsed the move—but only after the administration gave assurances that the troops would be back home in one year.

That promise has now disappeared down the memory hole.

Secretary of Defense William Perry informed the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 3 that the United States would keep 7,500 troops in Bosnia through mid-March 1997. Moreover, a 5,000-strong “cover force” would be sent to assist in the (now partial) withdrawal between December and March. In other words, the number of U.S. military personnel in Bosnia will actually rise in the next few months.

There is, in fact, no guarantee that American troops will not be stuck in Bosnia long after March 1997. The West European powers have been pressuring Washington for months to authorize U.S. participation in a “follow-on” force to IFOR, and administration officials seem increasingly receptive to their arguments. The Clinton administration, having secured grudging endorsements from a skeptical Congress and public for a limited, one-year mission to separate the belligerents in Bosnia, is apparently embarking on a nation-building crusade with no termination date. One would be hard-pressed to find a more cynical application of bait and switch.

Unfortunately, that ploy has been an all too common feature of American foreign policy in recent decades. Foreign policy officials, regardless of party affiliation, typically hold the elitist view that Congress and the American people are nothing more than annoying obstacles to be overcome. If deception must be practiced to prevent ignorant citizens and their elected representatives from obstructing the implementation of enlightened policies, so be it.

Indeed, bait and switch has been used on numerous occasions. The Somalia mission began as a humanitarian effort to distribute food and medicine to starving civilians. Not only did the Bush administration, which initiated the troop deployment just weeks before leaving office, stress the mission’s limited scope, but the Clinton administration initially did the same. By the summer of 1993, however, U.S. troops were assigned to hunt down the leader of one Somali political faction and Washington had signed on to the UN’s ambitious nation-building agenda.

Even the creation of Washington’s principal alliance, NATO, was sullied by the use of bait and switch. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other officials assured the Senate and the American people that there was no intention to station U.S. troops in Europe to implement the North Atlantic Treaty. Barely a year after the Senate ratification, which occurred in part because of those assurances, the administration announced plans to send four U.S. divisions to Europe and to place an American general in command of an integrated NATO force.

The Truman administration then exercised a second bait and switch, promising that both the troop deployment and the assumption of command responsibilities would be temporary. They were to last only until the West European countries had recovered economically and could take primary responsibility for their defense. Forty-six years later, the U.S. troops are still in Europe.

Congress and the public should remember that two-stage bait and switch when the debate takes place about whether to enlarge NATO. The Clinton administration is already indicating that the enlargement would not involve stationing U.S. troops or nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members—since such a step could lead to a nasty confrontation with Russia. Given the history of bait and switch regarding NATO, and the current administration’s fondness for the tactic in Somalia and Bosnia, such assurances should be taken not only with a grain of salt but with the entire salt shaker at hand.

The political use of bait and switch should be offensive to anyone who believes in democratic accountability. Congress and the American people are not merely inconvenient obstacles to be circumvented in the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy. Officials should be held to their word when they make a commitment, and if the substance of that commitment is about to change, both Congress and the public ought to brought back into the debate. The incoming 105th Congress would do the nation a great service by insisting on that point in connection with the Clinton administration’s rapidly expanding mission in Bosnia.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.