BRUSSELS — WITH a potential military confrontation with Bosnian Serbs days away and the formal Geneva peace talks suspended until March, the Clinton administration has taken control of the diplomacy on Bosnia and is preparing to pressure the Bosnian government, behind the scenes, to sign a peace plan that Washington formerly opposed.
According to five high-level United States and European diplomats, the new US engagement in Bosnia involves cajoling the Bosnian government into signing the so-called Owen-Stoltenberg partition plan, preferably before the 10-day NATO airstrikes ultimatum against the Bosnian Serbs runs out on Sunday. The partition plan would divide Bosnia-Herzegovina into three ethnic ministates.
The approach is a ``major shift in policy,'' said a senior US diplomat in Europe familiar with the peace negotiations in Geneva. ``We are now adopting the European position, pressuring the Bosnians, and closing the door on options other than the partition plan. Until now, the US had taken the position that if peace failed, there were other options.''
On Monday, Ambassador Charles Redman, US special envoy to the Geneva talks, met with European Union negotiator Lord David Owen, the principal negotiator for the past 18 months. They agreed that Mr. Redman would take the lead in the Geneva talks. Redman held informal talks with the three sides last weekend; Tuesday he traveled to Sarajevo.
One source says Redman has been instructed by the White House to ``tell the Bosnians to sign, or else. Don't fool around - get an agreement'' that meets ``minimum requirements.''
Prior to the NATO ultimatum, the US opposed creating borders taken by aggression and rejected imposing a solution on unwilling partners. As late as President Clinton's Jan. 10 NATO summit in Brussels, US officials still referred to a ``lift and strike'' policy - removing an arms embargo against the Bosnian government and using airstrikes.
The new US approach reportedly also will explore a gradual withdrawal of United Nations sanctions on Serbia; this would be a ``carrot'' to entice Belgrade into a peace settlement.
Only punitive measures
In December, the US opposed a plan by EU negotiator Lord Owen to lift sanctions on Belgrade, arguing they were the only punitive measures the world community had taken to Serb ``ethnic cleansing'' in Bosnia. Now, said one source, ``lifting sanctions is being sold as part of the necessary economic viability of Serbia that would lead to peace.''
One diplomat, who characterized the new policy as ``sign don't strike'' - a twist on the previous policy - said the new approach signaled that the Americans ``had now accepted the [partition] plan as the `least-worst option,' as [US Secretary of State Warren] Christopher calls it.'' The US previously held the position that ethnic partition in a multiethnic region would only lead to a prolonged guerrilla war.
The administration insists it has not shifted policy, but is ``reinvigorating the political track,'' as Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff stated last week. The US will attempt to satisfy the Bosnians' ``reasonable requests.''
After a mortar attack killed 68 people in Sarajevo's main marketplace on Feb. 5, NATO handed the Bosnian Serbs an ultimatum: Serb heavy weapons not removed to 13 miles outside Sarajevo or placed under UN supervision by Feb. 20 are subject to an attack by NATO aircraft.
But both the White House and NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner have stressed a negotiated end to the Bosnian fighting. Intense diplomatic activity could provide a rationale for stalling an attack, one source said.
The Bosnian government has so far expressed nothing but delight in the NATO ultimatum, the first expression of military help in the 22-month siege. In the next few weeks, much depends on how the Bosnian Serbs react. One diplomat worries that if the Serbs ``behave,'' the pressure will begin among European nations for Clinton to ``deliver the Bosnians'' - get a settlement from them.
``The British, French, and the Germans went along with military pressure expressly because the White House said, for the first time, that it would work on the Bosnians,'' the diplomat added.
The new US policy heightens disagreements both inside the State Department and among former US officials such as former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
``The NATO ultimatum is not about Bosnia,'' said one diplomat who insisted on anonymity. ``It is about the appearance of NATO credibility.''
Is new policy reactionary?
A high-level State Department official in Washington argues the policy is reactionary: ``We still haven't defined our interest in this conflict. `Stopping the killing' is not a just settlement, and [it] ignores balance of power in the region. What it means is that the US becomes the agent of the victors' terms.''
Yet to be worked out is how much responsibility the US will take for policing what could be a messy partition plan. Mr. Tarnoff has hinted that the US peacekeeping force will be a third of the 50,000 to 75,000 estimated peacekeepers, but said last week, ``We don't have any firm notion of what the size ... would be.''
Whether Congress will accept peacekeepers in Bosnia is un-clear. ``Policing an unfair agreement could get the US into the very quagmire the US has sought to avoid,'' one diplomat remarked.
Clashes among allies in NATO (Greece, Britain, and Canada argued against airstrikes), between NATO allies and Russia, and between the UN and NATO, illustrate that Bosnia is not a sideshow but is defining the West's geopolitical and geocultural future, say several US diplomats.
They worry that the White House is too focused on domestic issues. As one argued, ``If this crisis is so important it could lead to war, why are Tarnoff or Christopher not here? How many times did [former Secretaries of State] Kissinger or Baker travel to the Middle East?''