September 5, 2003 - For a government that used to abhor peacekeeping, the Bush administration is clinging with surprising tenacity to the American army's role as chief guarantor of law and order in the Balkans. To see the effects of this quiet change of heart, consider the tug-of-war that has been going on over Bosnia, a country whose war wounds have still not quite healed, despite more than seven years of intensive international care.

On one side of this contest, there is the European Union, which is in the early stages of turning itself into a serious security club that can organize military operations in dangerous places. The EU broke new ground recently by sending a peace enforcement mission to a volatile part of Congo. The bloc has also raised its profile in southeastern Europe by taking over from NATO as the main keeper of a fragile peace in Macedonia and by succeeding the U.N. as the organizer of police, but not military, operations in Bosnia.

With all these prizes under its belt, the European club has been aiming even higher. It has now offered its services as the coordinator of military operations in Bosnia, whose ghastly war of 1992-1995 is often cited by skeptical Americans as proof positive that western Europe is too weak-willed to enforce international law on its own doorstep. With a force of about 12,000, to which over 30 allies and partners have contributed, the Bosnia operation would certainly be the biggest challenge the EU has undertaken.

The answer from the North Atlantic alliance has been polite but firm: thanks for the offer, but NATO is happy doing its current job in Bosnia and it sees no reason to hand it over to anybody else.

The sub-text of this chilly exchange is easy to discern. The United States, which towers over NATO both militarily and politically, has decided to keep a garrison in Bosnia for the time being. Understandably, it also expects to retain the influence over Bosnia's future that such a commitment brings.

As U.S. officials point out, the American taxpayer has committed billions of dollars to establishing a secure and sustainable military base in Bosnia. Furthermore, the whole emphasis of the American military presence in Europe has shifted southward, away from Germany where it is no longer needed, toward the eastern Mediterranean where the embers of conflict are still glowing.

With so much at stake, officials say, America should be in no hurry to entrust Bosnia's future to the European Union where Washington is, at best, an influential outsider and, at worst, an outright competitor.

For better or worse, this trans-Atlantic spat seems to have wrecked the chances for a "win-win solution" to Balkan peacekeeping along lines that both sides -- Americans and Europeans -- claim to favor.

American officials have spent years urging the Europeans to take more responsibility for their continent's security, and the Europeans -- via the newly emboldened EU -- are apparently offering to do precisely what America wants.

So why shouldn't the United States take up the EU's offer and free up its own forces to undertake more serious military tasks in other parts of the world? This argument would be almost unbeatable if it really were true that Bosnia's problems had essentially been solved so that peacekeeping there had become a routine task.

And, on certain fronts, Bosnia has undeniably seen impressive progress. Over a million Bosnians have gone back to homes from which they were expelled by force, and, in cases where the return of refugees is obstructed by extremists, the problem can be dealt with by local police rather than foreign soldiers.

While the problem of criminal influence over Bosnia's economy and society remains acute, the country's international protectors are developing new techniques for dealing with it, such as freezing illegally gained assets. It is not self-evident that American soldiers are needed for these tasks.

On the other hand, there are good reasons, from America's viewpoint, why Bosnia's security still needs to be taken very seriously.

Militant Islamists continue to compete for influence among Bosnia's Muslims, and the extremists might take advantage of any slackening of the Western commitment to that country.

While a hasty American pullout could be an opportunity for hard-liners, it might also be seen as a disappointment, even a betrayal, by the more moderate and responsible leaders of Bosnia's Muslim community. From their perspective, it was American intervention in 1995 that finally settled the war on terms they could accept. As they remember things, the European-led U.N. force that had earlier tried to hold the ring was far too willing to compromise with the Serbs.

In short, America's actions in Bosnia earned some respect from Muslims both in that country and much further afield, and that is hardly a prize that Washington is likely to throw away lightly, especially at a time when its relations with another Muslim but Western-oriented nation, Turkey, have grown decidedly frosty.

A further argument for caution in Bosnia is the residual influence of anti-Western extremism among the Bosnian Serbs. This was highlighted by the discovery a few months ago that an arms company in Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, was attempting to supply Iraq's air force.

And, finally, America must factor in the reality that Europe's best peacekeepers, the British, are so over-stretched by their commitment to Iraq that Britain would have very few soldiers available for an EU-controlled force in the Balkans.

Clearly, then, America's reluctance to let the European Union step in reflects more than petty trans-Atlantic jealousy.

In fact, it ought to be possible for Washington to retain as much leverage as it wants in Bosnia while also taking advantage of the EU's declared keenness to do more for its own neighborhood.

How can this be done? No matter who bears the burden of multinational peacekeeping in Bosnia, America's bilateral military links with Bosnia's leaders are likely to remain extremely close. This relationship, which goes back to the darkest days of the war, will receive an important boost when, some time in the next year or two, Bosnia joins Partnership for Peace, the NATO-led military cooperation program that grooms countries for full membership in the alliance.

Whatever NATO does, the United States can keep a substantial military base in Bosnia on a purely one-to-one basis for as long as it deems necessary. That might not be the case forever, given that Washington's geopolitical footprint in the Balkans is already guaranteed by a large base in Kosovo, where an EU takeover is not under discussion, and may soon be supplemented by facilities in Romania and Bulgaria.

But nobody, least of all the EU, is going to hustle America out of Bosnia any sooner than it chooses.

In the short term, the challenge will be to ensure that easing America's burden there does not imply any abrupt change of policy or loss of confidence among those people in Bosnia who still need protecting.

This is not an impossible task, given the many years that American and NATO diplomats have devoted to negotiating arrangements with the EU that protect the interests of the older alliance.

In practice, there is very little the European Union can do without making some use of NATO's military assets such as transport, logistics, and intelligence. The Atlantic alliance will only make those assets available for a European-led operation on its own, toughly stated terms. These include a tight NATO grip on EU military planning and elaborate safeguards for the interests of European allies, such as Turkey, that are not members of the EU.

Washington could protect its own interests and earn considerable goodwill if it proceeded as follows. The U.S. -- and, in turn, NATO -- could formally state that it was happy, in principle, to hand the Bosnian peacekeeping mission over to the EU, subject to a series of tough conditions. These would presumably include an unwavering commitment to the unimpeded return of refugees, the reform of Bosnia's armed forces, and the arrest of indicted war criminals. NATO would be entitled to ask hard questions about the military effectiveness of the proposed European force and, above all, about the clarity of its command structures.

It could be accepted, amicably and by all sides, that the conditions for a handover did not quite exist and that they were unlikely to for at least another year.

But working together to create those conditions could be a commonly agreed-upon goal, toward which NATO and the European Union could strive constructively. Then, America's hard-pressed taxpayers, Europe's muscle-flexing soldiers, and the ordinary people of the Balkans could all be winners.