THE best thing that could happen to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic would be to have President Clinton agree to allow former President Carter to mediate the three-year-old Bosnian crisis. This is why Karadzic, whose troops daily kill innocent people, is so eager to bring Mr. Carter into the crisis, and why the former president is now in Bosnia. Carter would like to let his lack of knowledge of Bosnia make him an honest broker. It is to be hoped that the State Department briefers have made it clear that Bosnia is not North Korea and certainly not Haiti.
Frankly, though, Karadzic needs Carter. Karadzic is in some trouble. Despite US Defense Secretary William Perry's premature epitaph some weeks ago, Bosnia has not yet been defeated. Karadzic's forces have sustained some defeats in central Bosnia that must seem alarming to him.
But his worst problem - the reason he is so eager to bring in Carter to prolong negotiations - is that the United Nations is talking about pulling out, perhaps with NATO assistance, after three years of a mission in Bosnia that has worked to the Serbs' benefit.
The removal of UN troops in Bosnia would deny Karadzic his most important source of supply. More than ever, the Karadzic war machine is literally fueled by UN aid. The Serbs take nearly half of all food shipped by truck and nearly 40 percent of all fuel.
Moreover, NATO troops would not behave like the lightly armed Bangladeshi forces now being pushed around in Bihac. Before leaving, they would clear a 30-mile zone around Sarajevo and free the airport. They would take out surface-to-air missile sites and disable Serb radar. They would give the Serbs a different kind of fight.
Every one of the six items Karadzic offers - such as opening the Sarajevo airport or allowing safe delivery of aid - is something he is already obligated to deliver in agreements too numerous to mention. The pusillanimity of the international community has always let him off the hook. Does Carter imagine he possesses some new ideas that will make Karadzic see reason? Carter is invited to Pale because Karadzic senses he can use the ex-president.
And what would Karadzic, accused of war crimes and genocide, get from the Carter deal? He gets points for drawing a former US president to Pale. He further muddies the diplomatic waters, buys time, resupplies his war chest, and (possibly) entangles the United States in Bosnia with the same failed conflict-resolution strategies that have hampered the UN mission from the start.
Carter means well. If he can get limited concessions that help in the short term, this may be to the good. But his mission looks more like a diversion set up by the aggressors. Mr. Clinton should see this.