By Esther Schrader of the Los Angeles Times and Tom Allard
The United States would train and lead an international police force, bypassing traditional peacekeeping bodies such as the United Nations and NATO, under a proposal by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
The plan, involving thousands of Americans permanently assigned to peacekeeping, would also be a major reversal by the Bush Administration, which has strongly opposed tying up its troops in such operations.
“I am interested in the idea of our leading, or contributing to in some way, a cadre of people in the world who would like to participate in peacekeeping or peacemaking,” Mr Rumsfeld told defence industry leaders in Washington last week.
“I think that it would be a good thing if our country provided some leadership for training of other countries’ citizens who would like to participate in peacekeeping … so that we have a ready cadre of people who are trained and equipped and organised and have communications that they can work with each other.”
One defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s something that is being discussed in a very serious way by some very serious people right now.”
Mr Rumsfeld had not decided how many US troops would be needed, although some estimates put the number at about 10,000. The overall size of the force, or who would pay for it, have not been discussed, but the idea has been raised with countries in Europe and Latin America, officials said.
The proposal follows criticism of the Pentagon for being unprepared for the postwar violence in Iraq, and complaints by the US Army that its troops were not trained for the kind of police work needed there.
Mr Rumsfeld acknowledged that it would have been good to have had such a peacekeeping force before the Iraq war.
But the move would likely be opposed by the US Army, which has resisted efforts to draw its troops into peacekeeping, especially now that it is stretched thin with operations in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
As well, there are questions about how many nations would sign up if such a force were under the control of the US, whose willingness to collaborate with other countries is suspect in many parts of the world.
The retired general William Nash, a 1991 Gulf War commander and leader of NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia, said: “It seems to me that they have now decided that this is a great opportunity for multilateralism. Who knows, maybe somebody will buy it.”
Charles Pena, of the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said: “We’re not terribly good at peacekeeping, so I don’t know why we would be training people to be peacekeepers.”
However, a senior defence official said: “The way Secretary Rumsfeld envisions it, anyone with concerns about US peacekeeping should be assuaged, because the whole idea is for us to do less, rather than more, peacekeeping.”
Although it would keep a small number of US forces in peacekeeping, it would aim to enlist other countries to contribute the vast majority of troops, with the promise that they would be trained and organised by the US.
Last night, a spokeswoman for the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, would neither confirm nor deny that the Australian military was aware of the Rumsfeld plan. Australia was prepared to join coalitions of the willing if this was in the national interest, she said.
A spokesman for the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said: “We don’t know anything about it. The concept hasn’t been raised with us.”
The proposal comes as Australia announced that it was ready to send 2000 troops, police and government officials to rebuild the Solomons.
It also coincides with a heated debate over the merits of the UN system, with Mr Downer saying that such bodies often produced “ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator”.