NO one can fail to applaud the Clinton administration's diplomatic tour de force in getting the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnian Muslims to sit down together at a location remote from their embattled homeland and sign a peace accord. Yet there are shoals and hazards just beneath the surface that should deter any premature celebration while the president attempts to sell the American people and the Congress on his commitment to send US peacekeeping troops to Bosnia.
The trouble with the new peace agreement is that it has no natural foundation in the region, other than the momentary exhaustion of two of the parties, the Serbs and the Muslims. It rests, on the one hand, on political myths and contradictions, and, on the other, on the momentary political will needed to galvanize the overweening economic and military power of the United States.
As President Clinton has observed, the American people could not bear to watch the carnage on their TV screens any longer. Perhaps more to the point, he could not bear any longer the slings and arrows of critics who found his earlier deference to international peacemaking merely a symptom of spinelessness.
The commanding myth of the Dayton agreement is that Bosnia is a real political society, a ''multiethnic democracy'' that must somehow be kept together in an ''integral state.'' How this illusion was seized upon as the guiding principle of US policy toward the region is still a mystery.
Any reality in the multiethnic ideal ended when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991. Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia were determined to stay connected with Belgrade - i.e., in a ''Greater Serbia'' - making civil war against Croatian and Bosnian Muslim authorities inevitable. The only surprise was the intensity of the grass-roots genocide that Serbian nationalists whipped up.
The West Europeans, to their credit, recognized the realities of Bosnia's disintegration and Croatia's minority problem. A UN-policed cease-fire worked for three years in the Serb-populated Krajina region of Croatia, though it was not to the liking of Zagreb, which simultaneously wanted Croatia's old administrative borders and an ethnically pure state.
As for Bosnia, the European Community (now called the European Union) twice got the three factions to agree to partition under a confederation - at Lisbon in February 1992, and in the form of the Owen-Stoltenberg plan at Geneva in the summer of 1993. Each time, the Muslims backed out, believing in tacit US support for an integrated, Muslim-led government of the whole republic. Ironically, after all the killing, the Dayton peace only delivers an inferior replica of the earlier confederation plans.
Instead of dividing Bosnia clearly among its three ethnic components, with a central government that could have some semblance of independence from its constituent states, the new scheme polarizes the republic between the Serbs and the ''Muslim-Croat Federation,'' with a central government reduced to near-meaninglessness. A further weakness of the two-Bosnia plan: Instead of making Sarajevo a federal area as in earlier failed proposals, it assigns it to one side. This arrangement could disrupt the whole peace.
To compound the trouble, the US administration proposes to build up the Muslims militarily while it undertakes to be peacekeeper - in other words, to be simultaneously referee and coach for one side.
The so-called Muslim-Croat Federation is yet another myth, papering over the chasm between its two elements. We need only recall the devastation of the city of Mostar with its ancient bridge, and the present partition of the city between Muslims and Croats. Barring strict international policing over the long pull, the peace plan puts the Muslim component of the ''federation'' at the mercy of the Croatians, who have already integrated the Croat regions of Bosnia into their republic (even in elections), and are likely to reduce the federation and the Muslims with it to the status of a Croatian puppet. Croatia, armed by the Germans and trained by the US, is the real winner in this war and this peace.
A final myth, especially preferred by the Clinton administration, is that a Bosnian settlement is vital to American national interests. Humanitarian emotions and domestic political credibility are invested, to be sure, but there is no material American interest whatsoever. This is not an auspicious condition to sustain public support for an American peace-keeping force.
In his speech of Nov. 27 Clinton emphasized, above all, limiting casualties as well as the duration of the troop commitment, but these conditions almost guarantee the expedition will fail to impose a lasting peace. The American public seems to want its government to pose as the world's leader, without paying any price for exercising that role. Each of our political parties hangs on one horn of this dilemma, the Democrats reiterating the nation's global responsibilities and the Republicans caviling at the possible human cost.
Only in the broadest sense, to validate America's claim to the exclusive global superpower role, does the administration's Bosnia position make sense. In other words, what is at stake goes well beyond Wilsonian moralism; it is global unilateralism, a national undertaking to become the world policeman, even if Clinton balks at the term.
Meanwhile the United Nations, the incarnation of multilateral security responsibilities, has become the whipping boy of covert American isolationism, after mission creep in Bosnia and the inadequacy of its resources - as in Somalia - discredited its efforts. This is a salutary lesson to heed in debating the Clinton plan.