Is US Closer to Rewarding Serb `Ethnic Cleansing'?

New White House `engagement policy' isn't a true change of course

ACCORDING to President Clinton's recent statements following the NATO ultimatum in Bosnia, administration officials are asking the Bosnian government to state its ``bedrock'' reasonable requirements for a partition settlement.

Instead, the Bosnian government should be asking our president what ``bedrock'' American values and principles of international law he is willing to sacrifice in order to get a quick and illusory agreement.

The United States-mediated agreement that Bosnian and Croatian officials signed in Washington on March 1 is the first diplomatic manifestation of the newfound American resolve to secure such a settlement. While this rapprochement between Bosnia and Croatia is a necessary first move to ensure the survival of a Bosnian state, it must be followed by serious measures to force the Serbs to relinquish territory that they have taken by brute force.

Unfortunately, the administration has done nothing to suggest it plans to abandon its oft-tested and always unsuccessful diplomatic pressures and tactics for dealing with the Serbs. Ironically, we were at a similar point in our failed diplomacy nearly a year ago, when the Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats agreed to the Vance-Owen partition plan.

That diplomacy, not backed by a credible threat of force, could not bring the Serbs on board. Why now would our more ``direct engagement,'' with the ``full weight'' of our diplomacy, convince them to make substantial concessions?

This latest twist in our Bosnia policy is merely that - a twist, a shifting of gears or emphasis rather than a true change of course toward dealing forcefully with Serbia. The sad fact is this adjustment of our policy brings us a step closer to rewarding Serb aggression and using US ground troops to keep Bosnians off their own land.

It may even be a step backward. While an Owen-Stoltenberg plan would require Serbia to return nearly 30 percent of the territory it has taken, the ``full weight'' of American diplomacy is being concentrated only on the parts of Bosnia whose non-Serb populations Belgrade has been unable to deracinate.

By undertaking this most modest of measures, the Clinton administration hopes to be seen as the protector of the victimized Bosnian state. We have welcomed Russia's offer to play a similar role on behalf of the Serbs. As a result, Russian troops are now maintaining Serbian lines in the suburbs of Sarajevo and staving off another threat of airstrikes.

Having been reduced to the level of a European power looking after the interests of a client state, the US still has to prove how well it is serving the 1 million Bosnians fortunate enough to survive Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's terror - but who grow ever more unlikely to go home again.

Unless and until the White House directly addresses Serb aggression - the sole root of the crisis in the former Yugoslavia -

the horrors and injustice will continue. The US and the European powers must effect a balance of power in the Balkans. They can do this by threatening more external force, restoring the Bosnians' legitimate right to self-defense by ending the arms embargo, or introducing tens of thousands of peacekeepers along Serb-created ethnic fault lines throughout Bosnia.

The Clinton administration is driving us toward the last option. In addition to trying to keep Serb forces out of what remains of Bosnia, our troops would serve as apartheid police by ensuring that Bosnian forces stay in their prescribed homeland, and by supervising the movement of hundreds of thousands of Bosnians who found themselves on the wrong side of the borders of the new ministates.

Call it officially sanctioned, US-facilitated ``ethnic cleansing.''

Contrary to all the noise about renewed US engagement and restored NATO credibility, we are merely embarking on the path of least resistance. Once in a great while, such a course is also the most dangerous and threatening to our own values and interests. This is one of those times. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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