AFTER A FORTNIGHT of U.S.-sponsored-negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, the Clinton administration appears confident enough of a Bosnia settlement to begin an intense drive to turn congressional sentiment about sending 20,000 U.S. troops there from distinctly negative to borderline positive.
Grounds for cautious optimism can be found in agreements among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims on some especially contentious issues. Foremost is the Serb-Croat accord under which the Serb-led Yugoslav regime in Belgrade will evacuate the eastern Slavonian territory it occupied when it opened war on Croatia four years ago. Combined with the Serb relinquishment of Krajina with hardly a fight last August, this represents a major turnaround by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from war-monger to peace-monger.
But like most things in the Balkan puzzle, moving one piece causes shifts in others. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is strutting these days, even to the point of promoting a general, Tihomir Blaskic, who was indicted Monday by the International War Crimes Tribunal. Now that he has gotten what he wants from the Serbs, there is some concern that Mr. Tudjman will cause trouble between Muslims and Croats linked in a Bosnian federation.
Negotiators in Dayton are now concentrating on territorial disputes. Muslim leaders, clinging to a fading dream of a multi-ethnic state, are likely to resist what appears to be an inevitable partition. One obstacle may be avoided if Sarajevo is effectively internationalized. But the eastern Muslim enclave of Gorazde remains a tough-nut problem in that NATO is semi-committed to its defense despite its inherent vulnerability. So far as the Bosnian Serbs are concerned, they are determined to hold onto the Brcko corridor which provides contiguity for their autonomous rump state.
As these Balkan peoples acknowledge war exhaustion -- at least till the next round -- President Clinton is polishing his arguments for a U.S. role in peace enforcement.
In our view, he is correct in asserting he will not forego his "constitutional prerogatives" as commander in chief even if Congress refuses to support the mission. U.S. leadership in Europe and NATO is at stake, he said in a letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich. But, again in our view, Mr. Clinton has not made a convincing case for risking U.S. lives and spending more than $1.5 billion in a Balkan intervention.
Any president who sends troops into peril without strong popular backing is in peril himself. It is even riskier if he has to deal with a TTC triangle of blood enemies. Bosnia could turn out to be Mr. Clinton's greatest foreign policy triumph -- or his worst mistake.