THERE are two ways of looking at the present Western effort in the former Yugoslavia. One, as a cop-out; the other, as a long-term, constructive engagement. In the cross-eyed context of Balkan policy, both are true.
Intervention by IFOR, the NATO-plus Implementation Force, was a bold act that stopped the killing. Without that, nothing could be done. Now there's reason to believe IFOR won't be attacked and the parties to the conflict won't go to war after IFOR is gone. US forces leave in about a year; Britain and France, the next-largest troop contributors, say they will not keep their soldiers in Bosnia a day longer.
The governments concerned will have done their best, giving the survivors a chance to rebuild their lives. If they choose to resume fighting, it will be their tragedy. There will not be another IFOR in Bosnia.
The exit strategy is, however, coupled with an open-ended, admittedly long-term, civil implementation program intended to establish peace and restore the society of Bosnia. It's as though the European powers decided to make good their share of responsibility for the horror of the Yugoslav war. Working through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have set about regenerating confidence in communities. The peace agreement from Dayton, Ohio, last November asks the OSCE to supervise constitution building and elections in Bosnia and the exercise of human rights in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. It will assist the parties in good-faith arms reduction and arms control.
The OSCE has never had such broad responsibility. How well it performs may determine its role in the future. The prospects of success shouldn't be overestima- ted. With 52 member states, the organization has been essentially a security alarm with a conventional arms-control mechanism operating on the cumbersome basis of unanimity. Its potential lies in the fact that it includes the US, Russia, and European Union nations. But it has no teeth - neither joint armed forces nor the power to impose political or economic sanctions. OSCE missions have been brushed aside in Russia (Chechnya) and in Serbia.
A binding treaty
The Dayton agreement doesn't impose a settlement. It's a treaty in which the warring parties bind themselves to terms of peace. Serbia, Croatia, and the bifurcated Bosnia are sovereign states, yet they can be moved to comply. For one thing, the severe UN Security Council sanctions that impelled Serbia to negotiate are suspended. They are to be reimposed if Serbia doesn't fulfill its treaty obligations. It must, for instance, cooperate with the international war crimes investigation. There is also the threat that any party violating the agreement will get none of the planned reconstruction and development funds.
But the Dayton accord is full of ambiguities. The US speaks of an ''outer wall'' of sanctions remaining in place until Serbia grants human rights to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and to Hungarians in Vojvodina. This outer wall would block member- ship in international organizations and access to loans from the World Bank and IMF. But Britain and France accept no such barrier and are expected to champion Serbia's return, with Montenegro, to the UN as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and probably to the OSCE as well. London and Paris have been at odds with the Clinton administration from the start, most recently vetoing Washington's demand that IFOR be mandated to pursue war criminals.
Thunder still rumbles
Verification of compliance with the Dayton agreement may well bog down in arguments over sovereign rights. Continuing friction between Croatia and Serbia hinders the mutual recognition that Dayton demands, and there is thunder on the left as the Serbian Orthodox Church repudiates the agreement as ''unjust.''
While President Slobodan Milosevic, who started the war for a Greater Serbia in 1991, is now a pillar of peace, there's no evidence that he's abandoned his goal. Conflict was unproductive. Serbia is the largest and strongest of the Yugoslav states; diplomacy and the semblance of cooperation might be slower but sure.
The end of that road could be a larger Serbia, an expanded Croatia, and a bitter, rump Muslim state, a kind of Greater Sarajevo. This would mean that the OSCE had become a fig leaf, not a force for peace. It would be embarrassing for the US and for Germany, which has pressed hard for disarmament and human rights. It would be another point of dissension in the Atlantic community.