US Fumbled Its Chances to Back Peace Pact for Bosnia

IN foreign policy, governments often face a difficult choice of options between the feasible, but less desirable, and the desirable, but unrealizable. The Clinton administration is clearly facing this dilemma in the case of Bosnia.

The scenes from the former Yugoslavia naturally awaken reminders of the failure of the world to deal with the genocide of World War II and a determination not to let this happen again. The concept of negotiations brings visions of Munich and "appeasement." Serb leaders are branded "war criminals," and policymakers fervently seek the means to reverse Serb aggression. Yet the reality does not support the hope. As a result of US hesitation to face this fact, valuable time has been lost, time that has not on ly resulted in further tragedy, but also has weakened the indispensable support of Russia in pressures on Serbia.

As the administration has learned, little support exists in the United States for sending ground troops to Bosnia. Although several countries, including France, Britain, and Canada, provide troops to protect humanitarian relief in the region, the European countries - at least without US participation - have not been prepared to use military force against the Serbs. If that is the case, seeking an end to conflict through talks with the Serbs, under the aegis of the United Nations and the European Communit y, and supporting that agreement with peacekeeping forces on the ground - including US forces - appears the only option if the bloodshed is to be stopped.

When President Clinton took office in January, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, representing UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Lord David Owen, representing the European Community, were in the midst of agonizing negotiations seeking to create a peace plan for the former Yugoslav republic. That plan had a chance to succeed only if it had strong support from the US.

At two critical junctures in the Vance/Owen negotiations, however, the Clinton administration refused the kind of open endorsement that might have given greater impetus to peace efforts. When it first came into office, the new US team refused to express its support for the UN/EC plan and instead appointed a representative, Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew, to work with the negotiators. Even with this degree of participation at the end of March, when Messrs Vance and Owen had obtained the agreement of the Bosnian Croats and Muslims and proposed asking the Security Council for a formal endorsement of the plan as a means of pressuring the Serbs, the US backed away, seeking a more perfect solution.

Influential voices within the administration argue that the Vance/Owen plan is seriously flawed, that it cannot be implemented, and that even if it were, the plan would reward Serb aggression. Instead of negotiation, the US seeks measures to place greater pressure on the Serbs through stronger sanctions and considers lifting the arms embargo for the Bos-nian Muslims, a step strongly opposed by the Europeans. Air drops of supplies to Muslim villages, enforcing the "no fly" zone, and stronger economic meas ures against Belgrade will be effective, if at all, over time and will not reverse the current course of the conflict.

In the absence of a military effort to regain territory for the Muslims, the only realistic alternative was to negotiate a peace agreement that gave the Muslims a future share in a Bosnian state. That was the objective Vance and Owen pursued. The attempt at such a plan will continue with the new UN negotiator, Thorvald Stoltenberg of Norway, and Lord Owen, but the chances of success seem seriously diminished, in part by the lack of a prompt, clear endorsement by the US.

The true loser in this conflict has been the UN. The US, which frequently calls on the international organization to resolve problems, has failed to provide timely, vital endorsements of UN efforts. This has been so despite the participation of Vance, a highly respected and experienced diplomat. When he should have retired from his peacemaking trials with honor, his actions, instead, have been rejected by his own government; former close associates have openly criticized him. He deserves better.

In the midst of Bosnia's horrors, Mr. Clinton's search for a different solution has been understandable. But, tragically, the time spent in that search may have weakened a less desirable, but possibly feasible, option.

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