No Easy Path Seen for US In Setting Balkans Policy

White House has not yet endorsed mediators' peace proposal

DECIDING what might help douse the flaming war in the Balkans is turning out to be as much of a problem for the White House as was gaining support for its policy for ending the ban on gays in the military.

Taking a more "active" approach to the troubles of the former Yugoslavia is one of the Clinton administration's top foreign policy priorities, according to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But policymakers mulling over the situation in National Security Council and interagency meetings are confronting the same situation that faced Bush officials before them: There are no easy answers.

American allies oppose such steps as enforcement of a no-fly zone for Serbian aircraft over Bosnia. At the same time, the United States is coming under pressure to help push a peace plan devised by international mediators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen that a number of US officials and analysts consider deeply flawed. Lord Owen, the former British foreign secretary, represents the European Community, and Mr. Vance the former US secretary of state under President Carter, represents the United Nations.

As of this writing, the US had announced no decision on whether it would endorse the Vance-Owen formula. Some officials support the plan, which would sever Bosnia into 10 ethnic provinces. But publicly the Clinton administration was politely dismissing Lord Owen's complaint that it isn't doing enough.

"It's not a simple thing to come down one day and say boom-boom-boom, this is what we can do to solve it," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Feb 3.

The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, urged Clinton to accept the Vance-Owen formula. "It's the only game in town," he said.

Without the US on board, Bosnians will be emboldened to fight on in the belief that military help might be just around the corner, according to Lord Owen.

Objections to the Vance-Owen plan fall into two categories: principle and practicality. On principle, many analysts do not like the plan's implicit reward of aggression by allowing Serbs to retain much territory they have seized by force. The idea of splitting the country up into ethnic cantons is itself the reverse of what Vance and Owen originally set out to do.

At the beginning of negotiations "they were careful to say the provinces should be set on grounds of economics, traditional administration, communication infrastructure, etc.," says David Shorr, a Balkans expert at BASIC, a British-American security think tank. "What we seem to be seeing here is the best Vance and Owen felt they could get, which on the face of it doesn't look very good."

On practical grounds, the peace plan would be extremely difficult to enforce. Initial estimates coming from the United Nations were that 16,000 peacekeeping troops or more would be needed to keep warring sides apart - and Owen has been calling for some US ground troops to be involved.

Serbs have yet to be checked by a countervailing military force, and Bosnian Muslims now have many grievances against Serbs. There is no indication the US really could force the Bosnians to accept the plan.

"It's just not going to work," says Patrick Glynn, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Officials of the Clinton administration do say they support the efforts of Vance and Owen, and they could push for a realignment of the ethnic cantons. Their problem is that no other options are any more tenable.

The US military has spoken out strongly against a number of proposed actions, for instance. Senior officers say enforcement of a no-fly zone have little effect on the military situation. They are not much happier about the prospect of providing weapons to the Bosnian Muslims, an action currently proscribed by a UN arms embargo on the Balkans.

Ending the arms embargo on Bosnia "would just be contributing to the violence and would have no salutary effect," Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Jan 29.

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