ONE MESSAGE but two audiences:
The message from the Clinton administration is that the Bosnian war can spread to Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Greece, Turkey and even into the Middle East if a peace settlement eludes the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia -- all of whom are "locked up" in negotiations at a military base near Dayton, Ohio.
One audience is the leaders themselves and some Bosnian Serb militarists, pointedly excluded from Dayton, who face war crimes charges. The other audience is Congress, even more opposed than a month ago to President Clinton's promise to send 20,000 U.S. troops to the Balkans to enforce a peace settlement.
If Washington's plans materialize, Presidents Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia will come to an agreement within two or three weeks that supposedly will change the skeptical atmosphere prevailing on Capitol Hill. All this represents an assertion of U.S. muscle, diplomacy and politics that contrasts starkly with the earlier hands-off positions of the Bush and Clinton administrations.
The issue of war and peace in Bosnia is immensely complicated by ethnic rivalries that go back centuries. The United States has gained leverage with the Muslims and Croats by openly siding with them against Bosnian Serb aggressors. U.S. air strikes and the quiet arming of Muslim and Croat armies has turned the tide of battle in their favor -- so much so that they now control roughly half of Bosnia's territory instead of less than a third.
But the Balkans are the Balkans, and a subplot in the American agenda is to keep these friends of convenience from turning on one another. An additional subplot is how to keep the Bosnian Serbs obeisant to Mr. Milosevic, since their notorious leaders -- war crimes indictees Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic -- are his political rivals in the wider Serbian community. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's warning that U.S. troops will not be deployed until the Karadzic-Mladic bunch is deposed could goad hardline Bosnian Serb forces to resist any Dayton peace settlement.
Washington's condemnation of the Bosnian Serbs has made the United States an enemy in their eyes. And this, in turn, adds to the risks American G.I.s will face if they go to Bosnia -- a prospect that feeds into congressional opposition to involvement a Balkan conflict.
The administration's new-found enthusiasm for involvement in a civil war it once considered beyond the range of U.S. vital interests remains open to question. But having gone this far, it must not fail in the the quest for a settlement whose ultimate fate, alas, may lie as much with those who are not in Dayton as those who are.