Bosnia: the Long Sell

ON Bosnia, President Clinton finds himself in the position of a car salesman with an odd mission. He has to convince reluctant buyers that the model about to go on the road is both (1) powerful enough to face down nasty hot-rodders, and (2) small and quiet enough to be barely noticeable during the next (election) year.

One speech does not make the sale. Especially when the last such vehicle sold to the American public, peacekeeping in Haiti, shows signs of faltering.

We have detailed earlier the reasons why we believe NATO policing of the peace accord hammered out in Ohio is necessary. Here, let us just repeat that America has an interest in:

* Not letting the bloodiest, most inhumane conflict in Europe in half a century resume - and perhaps spread.

* Not permitting a rekindling of the larger conflict between the US/Western Europe and Russia (subdued after three-quarters of a century and trillions of dollars spent).

* Safeguarding the continuing assimilation of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia back into Europe.

* Leading other nations (particularly in Europe) to continue momentum toward a more orderly, democratic, peaceful, and open-trading world.

Having said all that, let us now mention some concerns. The US faces several contradictions in Bosnia:

By advertising a policing time limit (about a year), it creates an instant lame-duck status, inviting belligerents to postpone territorial ambitions. That can inhibit support for such complex peace steps as creating a national parliament, central bank, and high court to weld together the Serb and Muslim/Croat halves of the Bosnian state.

Washington will find it hard to arm and train Bosnian Muslim troops while aiding creation of a peaceful tri-ethnic nation.

Such arming in the name of military balance may upset the balance of interest among the main NATO partners (Germany, France, Britain) as well as among NATO abutters (Turkey, Greece).

But weigh these contradictions against the interests listed earlier, and it's clear that NATO plans must be made to work. That means the principals will have to devote more time than they expect to replanning and readjusting. In Washington that will be particularly hard as epic debate over government downsizing continues and election fervor reaches something like hurricane force.

This sale will have to continue as long as the car is on the road in Bosnia.

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