On taking office in January 2001, President George Bush said he intended to withdraw U.S. forces gradually from the Balkans as part of a worldwide effort to reduce American peacekeeping missions. This he has done. More than half of the some five-thousand U.S. troops in Kosovo have departed, and the ones in Bosnia will be withdrawn altogether by the end of the year to be replaced by European peacekeepers.
John Hulsman, who deals with European and NATO issues at Washington's Heritage Foundation, says this reduction makes sense given the Bush Administration's other priorities:
"Under the Bush Administration, with America engaged with four primary interests, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and with al-Qaeda, the Balkans have become a tertiary interest. The Bush Administration has talked about Europeanizing the conflict, giving the lead to local indigenous leaders as well as to the European Union with America playing a supporting role."
Mr. Hulsman says a certain degree of 'benign neglect' could prove politically useful in the Balkans. In fact, he says Albania and Macedonia have been seen lately more as partners, each has contributed troops to U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Hulsman believes Democratic candidate John Kerry might well reverse this trend and return to the interventionism that led to the air attack on Serbia to protect Kosovo and the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the fighting:
"The problem with the Kerry Administration, if it comes to power, is that people like Richard Holbrooke have made their entire career on the fiction that Dayton was a great success and will do almost anything that they can to prove this. So you can expect a much more overweening American presence in the Balkans."
Mr. Holbrooke, who was deeply involved in the Clinton Administration's Balkans policy, is mentioned as a possible secretary of state if John Kerry is elected.
James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton Administration and now a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Kerry, says his candidate would take a more active interest in the Balkans and build on the progress already made:
"What we need to do is lock in the stability that the Clinton Administration created there and make sure that we do not have the return of the kind of conflict and civil war that we had. We had a great success in that part of the world and we should not squander it by prematurely departing before stability and the beginnings of democracy and integration with European institutions has been completed."
John Kerry's advisers say he would maintain the current level of U.S. troops in the Balkans. He would tend to approach the region via Europe. His focus would be on Euro-Atlantic integration with the Balkans considered part of Europe rather than its backyard.
Kathleen Stephens, a current U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, says President Bush has remained sufficiently involved in the Balkans. His policy is not entirely measured in troop levels but in a variety of other ways:
"Overall, a policy of engagement has been essential to the progress that has been made, a policy of working with European partners and working with the countries on the ground on the path toward Euro-Atlantic integration. It seems to me that there is a bipartisan consensus on those overall goals."
John Lampe (pron: LAM-pee), professor of history at the University of Maryland, says there is a direct U.S. interest in maintaining stability in the Balkans, but only so much can be done no matter who wins the November election:
"I think your listeners in the region should not expect some new infusion of either economic assistance or military presence. The resources are not there, and also it is really time in the region for the various governments and populations to seize their own chances."
Analysts agree that as long as the United States remains in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the next president has only limited time and money to spend on the Balkans. That hardly diminishes their importance, only the level of U.S. involvement there.