THE story of Bosnia has been one of missed opportunity. Now the United States has another chance to help end the war there.
Credible threats by NATO could have halted Serbian agression in early 1992, saving more than 200,000 lives. Chilling reports of civilian concentration camps appeared two years ago, but US and allied inaction allowed the killing to continue in these facilities for several months. NATO issued ultimatums to end the murderous sieges in Sarajevo and Gorazde only after intense media attention and thousands of needless deaths.
Clearly the US needs to set a new course. And Slobodan Milosevic's break with the Bosnian Serbs offers an opening to do so.
A strategy of severing supply lines to the Bosnian Serbs while lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian government could end the war in a matter of months. If the Bosnian Serbs were completely isolated and had to face a well-equipped Bosnian government Army, they would be driven to the bargaining table.
Partially easing United Nations sanctions on Serbia could help solidify the apparent rift between the Bosnian Serbs and their patrons in Belgrade. But before any easing of sanctions, the international community must be sure that Mr. Milosevic's change of policy is genuine. After orchestrating more than two years of war, he needs to demonstrate his peaceful intent by making three specific, verifiable commitments.
First, the Bosnia-Yugoslavia border must remain closed to all goods except those exempted by the five-nation so-called contact group. Given Milosevic's record of duplicity, strict international monitoring of the border is essential. To modify an all too familiar Russian saying, ``Mistrust - so verify.''
Second, the Serbian government must end repression in minority-populated regions in Serbia proper. In Kosova, in particular, the situation could explode at any moment and could lead to a wider Balkan war.
Serbia needs to reduce its police and military presence in those regions, cease human rights abuses, and remove individuals associated with ``ethnic cleansing'' campaigns. Again, international monitoring - such as an expanded version of a mission of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe that was expelled last year - would be required to verify compliance.
Third, Serbia must agree to cooperate fully with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and must hand over any suspects. In order for reconciliation to take place once the war has ended, all ethnic groups need to have full confidence in an even-handed process of justice.
This three-pronged strategy would have considerable reward:
* It would demonstrate to the Serbian people that there are tangible benefits to peace and cooperation with the international community and encourage political moderation within Serbia. Diminished extremism in Serbia would promote long-term stability in the Balkans.
* It would give an economic boost to the formerly Communist-led states bordering Serbia, which have suffered trade losses because of international sanctions. Economic gains by these countries could help prevent the rise to power of nationalistic demagogues.
* Most important, it would pressure the Bosnian Serbs to abandon their opposition to the contact-group peace plan by severing their lifeline to Serbia.
On the other hand, few risks are associated with this strategy. In the worst case, Serbia will reject these conditions. The contact-group countries should then press ahead with a rigorous economic blockade of Serbia, as they discussed earlier this month.
Sanctions were placed on Serbia for a good reason. There is clear evidence of Serbia's direct involvement in the war and ``ethnic cleansing'' in Bosnia. If that involvement has indeed ended, then the most important underlying reason for the sanctions will have vanished.
However, Serbia cannot absolve itself for atrocities committed in Bosnia. Even as the UN eases sanctions in return for Serbian cooperation, it should not wholly eliminate sanctions until a peace agreement is fully implemented. If Serbia violates any of its commitments, then sanctions should be reimposed and tightened immediately.
It would cost far more to do nothing than to try a new approach that is consistent with our fundamental goals. A continued failure to achieve peace in the Balkans could lead to wider regional instability, a split within NATO, and perhaps a confrontation with Russia. That would squander the security it took nearly 50 years of the cold war to gain.
If we can foster Serbian moderation, we can achieve a Bosnian settlement that finally ends an insidious, continuing threat to European stability.