AS the West comes to admit that ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is not just a nightmare, but a stubborn reality, its leaders are hungry for a genuine political plan. More than any other factor, the lack of a long-term perspective has blocked military action against genocide. The United Nations must begin setting new, long-term goals for its actions in the Balkan region.
The central goal should be a pact, to be signed eventually by all the states of the former Yugoslavia, requiring the UN-guaranteed observance of human rights for all ethnic groups across Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the reduced Yugoslavia (Serbia plus Montenegro).
The main lines of this new direction should be worked out first in discussions between the United States and Russia, and then broadened to include the rest of the Security Council.
Why should Russia help - Russia, the supposed patron of the Serbs? Because Russian policy has the most to gain from a plan that, first, guarantees Serb minorities' human rights (notably in Croatia) and, second, dissociates Russia from the paranoid nationalism of the Bosnian Serb leaders.
Along with the US, the Russian Federation is the country with the most to lose from the spread of ethnic militarism. Its policymakers also have sharp personal experience of the utter irrationality of the Bosnian Serb chiefs they have tried to persuade.
The internal flaws of the Vance-Owen peacemaking process make new UN goals indispensable. Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen accepted ethnic homogeneity as a principle for peacemaking, so the negotiating of their plan has tended to underwrite the ongoing process of ethnic cleansing. They attempted to draw new internal boundaries to assure ethnic rule in Bosnia on a canton-by-canton basis.
But the interlacing of ethnic groups in most of the former Yugoslavia is so complex that it is impossible to draw a Serbian state that includes all Serbs - or a Croatian state that includes all Croats - without also including extensive "minority" populations whose human rights must be guaranteed.
As President Clinton recognized in his April 23 press conference, "the principle of ethnic cleansing is something we ought to stand up against. That does not mean that the United States or the United Nations can enter a war in effect to redraw the lines, geographical lines of republics within what was Yugoslavia, or that that would ultimately be successful." Mr. Clinton is right: No solution can be drawn on a map.
Throughout the Balkans, there are only three choices: ethnic cleansing, unstable tyranny by one group, or free multi-ethnic citizenship. "Where there is no vision, the people perish" has never been more literally true than it is now in the Balkans. It is time for Europe and the US to admit that the policy of accepting ethnic homogeneity as a criterion for statehood in the Balkans has been a catastrophe - not least for the many Bosnians who refused a Muslim, Serb, or Croat identity and called themselves " Yugoslavs" in the 1991 national census.
IS a new and different US-Russian approach an ambitious idea? Of course. But when the world is confronted with a formidable problem that is worsening rapidly, looking more than a month ahead is only common sense.
Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is right: Military action has little value unless it provides leverage for a genuine political plan. When Western leaders fully face the reality of genocide, they will have to forge such a plan. If the plan is worthy of the values of the UN Charter, then it will be possible for Russia to support it from the outset. With new political objectives, military intervention will have both an inner logic and a far greater chance of success.