Countdown in Bosnia

February 11, 1994

Although NATO has put itself in a hair-trigger position to start dropping bombs on Bosnia, the United States can still avoid military intervention if a long-needed switch in administration strategy produces results. For the first time since he took office, President Clinton has come out strongly for partition and has made it clear the U.S. will no longer encourage the Bosnian Muslims to keep fighting for more territory.

It was this change in the American position that enabled NATO to set a 10-day deadline for the withdrawal of heavy Bosnian Serb military equipment from the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. The trade-off involved European support for the U.S. threat of aerial strikes in return for an American promise to encourage the Muslims to accept a U.N.-sponsored division of Bosnia into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim territories.

Mr. Clinton's main pitch is still on NATO's new-found resolve to resort to force if necessary to stop the slaughter of civilians in the besieged Bosnian capital. This, however, is a dangerous move. It makes the alliance hostage not only to the bloody-mindedness of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats but to provocations by Muslims willing to take more punishment to gain international sympathy.

If the current crisis somehow can pass without NATO intervention, the new U.S. readiness to engage in pressure diplomacy on the Muslims may be one of the very few hopeful developments in the 22-month history of the Bosnia tragedy.

War broke out after the Western allies facilitated the breakup of Yugoslavia by recognizing Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, with the latter supposedly a multi-ethnic, unified state. It was a pipe dream that turned into a nightmare. With Serbs and Croats eager for separation and eventual linkup with their mother countries, they started grabbing territory from the Muslims. The conflict was on.

While the U.S. clung too long to the pipe dream, European peace negotiators working under U.N. aegis soon had to concentrate on the nightmare. They presented a series of partition plans, each one more disadvantageous to the Muslims, which the Muslims rejected in the hope of getting outside military support for their cause.

In that context, Mr. Clinton's assertion that the U.S. would try to "ascertain what [the Muslims'] legitimate, bedrock requirements are" carried with it the implication that Washington would seek partition on those grounds. "There is an awful lot of fighting and an awful lot of dying going on now over relatively small patches of land," he declared.

If the war now simmers down instead of exploding, it might be just the breakthrough needed to get all three sides to accept a peace agreement. Huge problems would still remain, but at least NATO would not be on a course that threatens more intense conflict, serious tension with Russia and entanglement in the Balkans with no ready exit.

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