Another Chance in Bosnia

May 13, 1994

To paraphrase the Passover question: What makes today's meeting of foreign ministers in Geneva different from the scores of other negotiating sessions that have failed to end the bloody ethnic war in Bosnia?

The difference is the presence of Russia as a full-fledged partner, a partner whose influence with the Serbs is greater than that of the United States, France, Britain and Germany combined. But the potential Russian lever moves nothing if the Western powers cannot forge a common position. This prospect is, at best, pretty dim.

Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, has been in Washington publicly pleading his case for a settlement that would be imposed -- that's the operative word -- on the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims. A nationwide cease fire would be required under the French plan, followed by negotiations leading to closure on a territorial partition under some sort of confederation arrangement.

However, there is friction between the French and the Americans -- this time because U.S. officials are skeptical that the outside powers actually can impose a settlement in a conflict so laced with fierce tribal emotions. Underlying the current U.S. posture is a desire to lift the international arms embargo that has denied Muslims needed weaponry to fight Bosnian Serbs well supplied by the Belgrade regime. The U.S. Senate even voted yesterday for unilateral lifting of the embargo -- a bit of folly whose consequences its members know they will be spared. But the Senate aside, the U.S. position on arms supplies lacks a grip on reality.

When the Muslims have reason to hope they will get more military hardware, they have less incentive to stop fighting. That's the flaw in the U.S. position. It explains why Mr. Juppe has been warning Americans that his country may pull its 6,000 soldiers out of Bosnia -- the core of the United Nations peacekeeping force -- if intensified conflict further endangers French personnel.

In the end, the Bosnian conflict can be settled only at the negotiating table or, through a process of exhaustion, on the battlefield. The Serbs now control 74 percent of the territory; the Croats and the Muslims want more than half of this, or 58 percent of the land area. The European Union has come up with a 51-49 percent split that would require concessions from all sides, but no maps have been drawn nor have the Muslims, the Croats or the Serbs signified acceptance. Still, it represents the current best chance for a solution -- provided the Americans, French and Russians come up with a unified position in Geneva today.

This is an opportunity that should not be frittered away. The alternative is continued, open-ended fighting with more

weaponry flowing in, more air strikes in prospect, more U.N. peacekeepers leaving and more Serb antipathy toward Americans who ostensibly are ready to police an agreed settlement.

Clearly, such an outcome is unacceptable.

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