AS the North Atlantic Treaty Organization draws up peacekeeping plans for Bosnia, the United States and its allies appear close to their most extensive deployment of military force since the Gulf war of 1991.
The plans may yet prove unnecessary. The self-styled Bosnian Serb parliament could still reject on May 5 the United Nations peace agreement that was finally signed by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic three days earlier. On May 4, Serb forces reportedly were continuing fierce attacks on the Muslim enclave of Zepa in eastern Bosnia.
US troops won't be committed to the Balkans unless a cease-fire takes hold among the battling Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Administration officials have been pushing for tough action against the Serbs, including air strikes, if they don't fall in line.
But Secretary of State Warren Christopher has promised European leaders that if the Bosnian Serbs ratify the peace agreement the US will carry its share of the load. "There is no question the United States is committed to helping in the enforcement of a viable good-faith agreement. We realize that will involve United States troops as well as those of our allies," Mr. Christopher said on May 4, before meeting French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
As he traveled to European capitals for consultations this week, Christopher found only lukewarm support for the apparent US get-tough plan: limited air strikes, plus lifting the arms embargo for Bosnian Muslims. Britain, France, and other allies were instead more enthusiastic about the chances for the UN-led peace process finally to take hold.
Commenting before Mr. Christopher's lunch meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Foreign Ministry spokesman Richard Duque said, "What counts most is that international pressure remain as strong as possible" on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan.
In an effort to seal approval of the Vance-Owen plan, Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis announced he would fly to Bosnia May 5 to attend the Bosnian Serbs' parliamentary meeting.
The irony, in the view of US officials, is that the peace process made little progress with the hard-line Bosnian Serbs until President Clinton decided to push for military measures.
But with extensive peacekeeping forces already on the ground in the Balkans, Britain and France felt their troops would be at risk of retaliation if Western bombs start falling around Serb forces.
The two countries are presenting a united front to American entreaties. After meeting with Christopher on May 4, French Prime Minister Balladur flew to London to discuss Bosnia with British Prime Minister John Major. "It is desirable that our two countries have similar positions," Balladur said before his visit with Mr. Major.
As consultations continue, the West holds its breath to see if the UN peace plan will take effect.
NATO is forging ahead with plans for a large peacekeeping force. Between 60,000 and 75,000 troops would be needed to keep rival Balkans factions apart, military planners estimate. Extensive air cover also would be necessary. About one-third of the peacekeeping ground troops would come from the US. It is not yet clear which nations would provide the other two-thirds of the needed forces.
Plans call for a mix of airmobile and heavy-armored American units to be sent the short distance from their bases in Germany to the Balkans. US marines now afloat in the Mediterranean also may take part. "This shows the value of forward deployed forces," says a US official knowledgeable about peacekeeping plans.
The US military has resisted being drawn into peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, fearing it would become a Vietnam-like quagmire, and it still has some qualms about the mission.
The political objectives for a Balkans peacekeeping deployment remain vague, in the view of some in the Pentagon. Just stopping the fighting is one thing; rebuilding a shattered society to the point of self-reliance is another.
True, US peacekeeping worked in Somalia. But the security problem there was vastly simpler - and in any case, a UN force will remain there for months, perhaps years, to come.
Bosnia has stored up enough hatred and enough bullets to last a very long time. "The danger is they could hide their weapons and go home and wait us out," the US official says. "That's why the coalition of nations needs to keep the fire on them," through such measures as continuing to threaten air strikes.
The rules of engagement for NATO troops in the Balkans likely would allow them substantial leeway to protect themselves. Though direct combat operations theoretically would not be necessary, attacks by guerrilla fighters would be met with an aggressive return of fire.
The NATO deployment could begin within weeks. Seizure of key airfields and ports by special troops likely would be its initial stages. According to various press reports, US Special Forces troops are already on the ground in Bosnia mapping possible targets and key terrain objectives.