London (CNSNews.com) - NATO Monday sought to play down the emergence over the weekend of a what appears to be a major foreign policy difference between the American presidential candidates over the future of U.S. peacekeeping forces in the Balkans.
The talk of a pullout of American peacekeepers was "hypothetical," NATO spokesman Lee McClenny said by telephone from Brussels.
"We are a military alliance," he added. "We don't dabble or involve ourselves in the democratic process in any of the 19 member nations. It's not something the secretary-general [George Robertson] has commented on."
The issue arose when Condoleezza Rice, foreign policy advisor to Governor George W. Bush, said in a newspaper interview late last week the Republican candidate would, if elected, pull American troops out of the Balkans.
The burden of peacekeeping in Europe should be borne by the Europeans, she said, while the U.S. would instead focus on other trouble spots, in the Persian Gulf and Asia.
Her comments were backed up by Bush "one hundred per cent," his spokesman said, and senior campaign official Ari Fleischer told reporters a Bush administration would see the military's role as one of fighting and winning wars, rather than carrying out peacekeeping operations.
The high-profile response came from Vice President Al Gore himself. The Democratic candidate told a union rally in Washington Bush suffered from "a complete lack of judgment" and a "complete misunderstanding of history," making him unfit to be president.
Bush's policy "could jeopardize fragile alliances. It would be a damaging blow to NATO," Gore warned.
And in an unusual intervention into the campaign by the State Department, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Bush's view could send a "very dangerous signal" and lead to regional instability.
In a written statement over the weekend, Rice shot back: "Vice President Gore seems to have a vision of an indefinite U.S. military deployment in the Balkans." Under President Gore, the U.S. military would continue to be over-deployed and weakened, added Rice, who could be national security advisor in a Bush administration.
Rice said while Bush looked forward to working with NATO to bring stability to
the Balkans, "police functions and civil administration are not appropriate long-term roles for the American armed forces."
Approached for NATO's reaction, McClenny said there was no suggestion all American forces would be redeployed from the region.
"If you go back and look at the full range of comments that were made over the weekend, as Ms. Rice made very clear, they weren't talking about a total and complete withdrawal," McClenny said.
"They were talking about: a) consultations with European and other NATO allies; b) the possibility of moving ground troops ... but continuing to play a role in some sort of support functions. They were not explicit about what that might mean, I don't think. It's all hypothetical, and not something we'd have any comment about."
The U.S. has more than 11,000 troops deployed in the Balkans, and is the single largest contributor to the 36,000-strong NATO-led KFOR force in Kosovo.
Apart from Kosovo, another 30,000 international troops are in the region - 10,000 support troops in Macedonia and Albania, and 20,000 in the SFOR stability force overseeing the implementation of the 1995 Dayton accord in Bosnia. American servicemen comprise about one-fifth of the total Balkans deployment.
After the recent political transformation in Yugoslavia, Robertson said there were no plans to withdraw the troops from the Balkans.
The Texas-based independent intelligence analyst group Stratfor noted Monday that, up until now, Gore has sought to minimize foreign policy differences with Bush.
In choosing to respond to the "probe" from the Bush camp in a "massive, coordinated and intense" manner, the Gore campaign gave the impression that its opponents had hit a nerve, Stratfor said.
It pointed out that, on the surface, Yugoslavia may appear to be a success story for the Clinton-Gore administration - unlike the situation in the Middle East, for example.
"Nevertheless, Bush views Yugoslavia as the vulnerable point in Democratic foreign policy." Bush had not challenged Gore on the decision to intervene militarily in the Balkans, but rather on his exit strategy.
"Gore and the Clinton administration have positioned the United States for a long-term presence in the Balkans. Bush has chosen this long-term presence as the battleground," according to Stratfor.
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