SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — LIKE the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the United Nations and the West suddenly find themselves in a military and political quagmire in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Using a theme darkly familiar to Americans, embattled UN and Western officials are sending signals that the goal now is ``peace with honor'' in Bosnia - or in other words peace at nearly any price.
But how, when, or even if the UN and West will be able to extract themselves from Bosnia remains unclear.
``The Vietnam analogy sticks,'' says George Kenney, a Bosnia analyst who resigned from the US State Department in August 1992 over Bush administration policy in the former Yugoslavia.
``The Europeans [and the UN] are really saddled with trying to find a way to end this. They're going to have to compromise,'' Mr. Kenney says.
Diplomatic sources in Zagreb predict a deal will be cut - probably at the expense of the Bosnian Muslims - that will allow the Bosnian Serbs to confederate with Serbia and realize their dream of a ``Greater Serbia,'' but the Serbs will be required to give up some of the 70 percent of Bosnia they now control.
In a shift of US policy toward Bosnia, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher told a Brussels meeting of NATO allies yesterday that the Clinton administration has changed its stance on Bosnia to a view that diplomacy, rather than force, is the best way to end the conflict.
``Let me stress one important fact: The crisis in Bosnia is about Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. It does not diminish NATO's enduring importance. We will redouble our efforts to find a diplomatic solution,'' Mr. Christopher said in opening remarks at the meeting.
``The international community wants to see an end to the fighting in Bosnia,'' a diplomatic source in Zagreb says, ``and is now willing to do what it takes to get a negotiated settlement.''
The West's decision last week not to intervene with massive force against the Serb offensive in the northwest Bihac area of Bosnia has dramatically shifted the balance of power here. Without the threat of NATO airstrikes, the UN has little leverage over the Bosnian Serbs and is pressuring the Muslim-led Bosnian government to concede defeat.
The UN's shift in strategy - and increasing desperation - was made clear on Wednesday after a dramatic visit by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed miserably.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali was snubbed by the Serbs and jeered by a crowd of about 300 Muslims chanting, ``Ghali go home.'' UN officials were openly dismayed by the Bosnian Serbs' refusal to meet with Boutros-Ghali.
Moments after Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic brazenly refused to meet with Boutros-Ghali, senior UN officials said the problem wasn't intransigence from the Serbs, but intransigence from the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
Warning of ``compassion fatigue'' in the West, a senior UN official said ``the Bosnians still haven't seen their predicament.'' The official said Boutros-Ghali's statement on Wednesday that the UN may have to pull out from Bosnia was a ``stark warning'' to the Muslims.
Bosnian Muslim officials say they will not agree to Bosnian Serb confederation with Serbia and back the current five-nation ``contact group'' peace plan that would give them 51 percent of Bosnia. Observers believe that if the UN does pull out, the Serbs would quickly win the war.
If the UN does decide to pull out its 24,000 peacekeepers, Muslim civilians could try to block departing UN convoys knowing it would make them completely vulnerable to Serb attack.
The UN also has billions of dollars worth of equipment in Bosnia - and is holding hundreds of Serb heavy weapons in the Sarajevo area - that Muslim and Serb forces could try to seize by force. A pullout under current conditions would be a ``nightmare,'' according to Mr. Kenney.
Boutros-Ghali said Wednesday that he would not recommend a UN pullout, but that the final decision is up to the UN Security Council. He did warn that if peacekeepers are harmed, individual nations could decide to withdraw their peacekeepers as they have in Somalia.
Both the Ukraine and Russia have threatened to pull out their peacekeepers. US Senate Republican leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas is pushing for a UN pullout, but the Clinton administration has said the UN should stay. The US has no peacekeepers in Bosnia.
For now, the fate of the UN mission in Bosnia appears to rest largely in hands of Bosian Serbs. Their forces are currently ``detaining'' more than 500 UN peacekeepers and blocking aid convoys as insurance against Western airstrikes.
Analyst Kenney says the meaning of the detentions and the humiliating Serb snub of Boutros-Ghali is clear. ``They're sending a message to [the West],'' he says. ``Stop the airstrikes, acknowledge that you've failed, and get out.''
But UN officials on the ground say they remain steadfast. Just after the Bosnian Serb refusal to meet with Boutros-Ghali, UN Bosnia commander Lt. Gen. Michael Rose said the UN has no new plans for freeing its detained peacekeepers and said he still rejects the use of punitive airstrikes.
``The problem is [the Serbs] have got their tails up in the air militarily. They're just trying to make some silly political point'' by not meeting Boutros-Ghali, General Rose said. ``There's very little we can do.''