IN its most complex diplomatic effort to date, the Clinton administration begins hosting Balkan leaders today in an effort to settle the 43-month Bosnian war, the bloodiest in Europe since 1945.
Over an initial estimated two- to fourweek period, three Balkan heads of state and a half-dozen negotiators from the United States, Europe, and Russia will meet to hammer out a new map and constitution for Bosnia, and to settle long-standing disputes between Serbia and Croatia.
If the talks succeed, a NATO force that may include up to 20,000 Americans will be dispatched to guarantee the settlement. If they fail, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke predicted Oct. 30, "the country will slip back into war, because the issues that led to war are unresolved."
Throughout the Bosnian war the White House has opposed any partition of Bosnia that would reward "ethnic cleansing" by Bosnian Serb forces. Mr. Holbrooke insists the administration is determined to preserve Bosnia as a unified state.
Some Washington insiders are skeptical. "No matter what they say, this is a dissolution of Bosnia that gives full diplomatic recognition and legitimacy to the aggressors," states a senior State Department official who served in the Bush administration.
Indeed, developments on both the Serb and Croat sides have placed a dark cloud over the negotiations, which, in part to limit media coverage, are taking place at the sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside of Dayton, Ohio.
The future of Bosnia's territorial integrity is being thrown into question by the Croatian government of President Franjo Tudjman. On Oct. 29, Croatia voted to let Croats from Bosnia be elected to the Croatian parliament in Zagreb. The move provides a legal basis for Croatia to claim the Croat-majority areas of Bosnia, destroying Bosnia's independent status. Should the maneuver work, the Serbian government in Belgrade would likely follow suit.
"It reveals in one swoop Tudjman's intentions to enfranchise the ethnic Croats in Bosnia," says Marshall Harris, executive director of the Action Council for Peace in the Balkans.
On the Serb side, press reports point to the possible complicity of President Slobodan Milosevic in the mass execution of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica last summer, and in the disappearance of thousands more Bosnian men and boys near Banja Luka as recently as last week.
Holbrooke told reporters Oct. 30 that the US backs the investigation being conducted by a war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, but has "no hard evidence" that links Milosevic to the atrocities. He insisted that international sanctions placed on the Milosevic regime in 1992 during the height of the "ethnic cleansing" campaign will be suspended only if a peace agreement is reached, and not lifted until it is implemented.
Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman will be joined in Dayton by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.
The administration's role in the talks dates to last summer, when the European-led United Nations peacekeeping mission in Bosnia began to disintegrate. Members of Congress threatened to overturn White House foreign policy by voting to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Political advisers began to warn President Clinton that the war could be used against him by GOP presidential contenders.
"The electoral calculation was a significant part of US involvement," says a State Department official who sat in on meetings with White House staffers last summer. "They were matter-of-fact about it. The talk was to 'do something.' They felt votes might depend on how 'this Bosnia thing' turns out, and that it needed to be resolved."
Until last summer, the administration deferred to British and French policy on Bosnia. But it began to reassess its role after the two Bosnian "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa fell - as UN troops stood by - and after the Croat military won surprisingly easy victories against supposedly invincible Serb forces in Croatia.
Clinton was nudged further when incoming President Jacques Chirac reversed French policy last July by calling for NATO airstrikes following the humiliation of French legionnaires who were taken hostage by Serb forces.
US participation in a Bosnia peacekeeping force has been deemed essential by NATO members, but has met with considerable skepticism on Capitol Hill. Holbrooke says a nonbinding resolution passed by the House Oct. 30 asking for congressional approval before sending troops to Bosnia "grievously interferes" with the pending talks in Dayton.
Starting tomorrow, Mr. Holbrooke and European and Russian diplomats will shuttle among the three delegations to secure agreement on the various draft peace proposals.
The Dayton talks are expected to focus initially on the constitutional structure of Bosnia. The Bosnian government is reportedly pushing for a strong central federal authority. The Serb delegation is advocating a weak central government, giving minority Serbs an independent role even in such areas as foreign policy.